Often, the psychological turbulence of those first days or weeks is so debilitating that recently incarcerated people can’t even navigate public transportation; they’re too frightened of crowds, too intimidated or mystified by the transit cards that have replaced cash and tokens. In a recent study, the Harvard sociologist Bruce Western describes a woman who ‘‘frequently forgot to eat breakfast or lunch for several months because she was used to being called to meals in prison.’’ I met one man who explained that, after serving 15 years, he found himself convinced that parked cars would somehow switch on and run him over. So many years inside can leave people vulnerable in almost incomprehensibly idiosyncratic ways, sometimes bordering on helplessness: ‘‘Like that little bird, getting his wings’’ is how one man described himself on Day 1.
NY Times, You Just Got Out Of Jail, Now What?
When I was riding the Greyhound from Syracuse, NY to Chicago, I had a layover in Cleveland late at night. I found a spot with my two large duffle bags and laptop, and just waited quietly. It was loud and quite busy at that hour. Close by me, there was a man trying to use an ATM to withdraw money and was struggling with it. He asked for my assistance, so I went over to see what the problem was.
He was wearing a plain white T-shirt, grey sweatpants, and generic sneakers. Nothing special or unusual at this hour, as most people were a little underdressed for their overnight bus rides. What did stand out for me was the stack of banker boxes behind him with just a small bag. After I helped him out withdrawing the money, he started to explain to me why he was struggling so much. He was fresh out of jail, having spent a dozen years at the Chillicothe Correctional Institution, and the boxes contained everything he owned, mainly legal documents.
The name of the prison stood out for me, because my maternal grandmother grew up in Chillicothe1, so I've heard the name countless times over the years. I looked it up, and it had actually opened well after she had departed the town.
I only talked to the man for maybe ten minutes, because I had to go catch my bus. What I was able to glean from him was that he was in there for financial fraud from his wife, not any violent crimes. This was 2005, so he entered in 1992 when I was just barely a teenager. Paying for water was new to him, as were ATMs, Discmans, the internet, cellphones, how prevalent computers were, and more. It was incredibly stressful for him to just buy something to eat at the bus terminal.
I helped him withdraw money from the ATM, bought him something to eat and drink with my money, and then wished him luck as I headed off. A ten minute encounter that has stuck in my mind for over ten years now.
The NY Times story is a long read about two men who help men like the one I met on a regular basis, taking them out for lunch, buying them clothes, and doing anything they can to help them adjust to a completely different world than the one they left behind. It's an incredible story and well worth taking the time to read.
- Chillicothe was actually the first capital of Ohio in the 1800s. The things you learn from Wikipedia. ↩