Life After Prison: The Invisible Barrier Can’t Be Wished Away

An inmate contemplating release comes to terms with the fact that the realities of life on the “outside” mean that for most returning prisoners, the American Dream has already been foreclosed.

In the prison where I am confined, there is a table in the dayroom at which the same four men spend the entire day playing Dungeons & Dragons. At their feet are stacks of costly books they occasionally refer to (presumably) on how to cast spells or make witches brew.

At another table sits a trio who spend the afternoon and evening drafting frivolous court pleadings and sharing legal strategies. Books on criminal procedure and copies of case law are close at hand—all to be misapplied and misinterpreted by the men.

There are innumerable variations on this theme throughout the dayroom in a penitentiary: from wanna-be entrepreneurs sharing copies of Fortune magazine, to fake pimps sharing stories about the imaginary ho’s on their “team.”

To the untrained eye these groups appear to be distinct. But there is actually a common theme.

Each endeavors to escape the reality of what the future will likely bring.

Try as they might to ignore the truth, the flyer from the Post-Prison Education Program that is readily available explains quite clearly how “[f]or many prisoners, returning to our communities means a lack of opportunity and a life of hopelessness and despair.”

This is the reality that prisoners refuse to contemplate seriously: A life of hopelessness and despair.

Let us examine the prospects of a prototypical prisoner who is set to be freed. In fact, to better his odds of success, let us make him atypical, in that he has no cognitive impairments or avowed intent to engage in further criminal activity.

What he does share in common with similarly situated prisoners is a spotty work history; a lack of financial resources available upon release; few (if any) family or friends able (or willing) to help him, once freed; and no marketable skills that would enable him to make a decent living.

This is the boulder that he must somehow push aside in order not to be among the two out of three who return to the penitentiary. Moreover, he is wedged against a host of barriers that prevent felons from successfully reintegrating into society.

For instance, federal student aid is foreclosed to those who have committed drug offenses in certain circumstances.

There are restrictions on where ex-offenders can live—even if they have the means.

Most significantly, once freed, a former prisoner will be black-balled from countless employment opportunities due to the stigma of his criminal history.

Devah Pager paints the picture of what life on the outside will bring in Marked: Race, Crime, and Finding Work in an Era of Mass Incarceration.

Formal exclusion from the economy occurs “through the web of federal and state laws that restrict ex-offenders from a range of labor market activities” and many restrictions have little “connection to apparent safety concerns,” according to Pager.

Even when ex-offenders are not barred by law from an occupation, her research shows how they are culled from the pool of applicants by criminal background checks and, as a consequence, are only “one-half to one-third as likely as equally qualified non-offenders to be considered by employers.”

None of this is surprising to those involved in reentry. Whether one endorses psychological, biological, or social theories to explain criminal behavior, it is abundantly clear that felony disenfranchisement makes it difficult for individuals to desist from engaging in criminality.

That is, unless one is willing to accept their dismal circumstances and go on with the business of maintaining their liberty.

Long ago, I came to terms with knowing that if ever I was set free, in all probability I would end up living on the margins of society.

That life on the outside would not be about thriving—it would be about surviving.

I refused to ignore researchers such as Pager who have proclaimed that the “combination of blackness and a criminal record creates barriers to employment that in many contexts appear virtually impossible to overcome.”

This is my reality.

Acceptance that one’s future is bleak—and that there is little that prisoners can do to change their destiny—can go a long way towards mitigating the risk of reoffending, I believe.

It inoculates against feelings of relative deprivation and you forgo chasing pipe dreams.

Often, I wonder why correctional systems do not offer cognitive-behavior-therapy programs aimed at getting prisoners to accept that the measure of success upon release will be if they can maintain their liberty while living in poverty.

Lest you think I’m being facetious, I am actually half-serious about this.

If designed properly, such a program could try to convince prisoners that social or economic inequities do not prevent them from enjoying life, even if most of it is spent scrambling to make ends meet.

Since no such program as yet exists, my suggestion to the hypothetical prisoner on the verge of being released is this: Embrace your status as a second-class citizen.

To the extent that the American Dream was ever availing, it has now been foreclosed—just accept it.

Fighting against this concept will simply cause cognitive dissonance and lead you back to drugs and other crookedness.

Jeremiah Bourgeois

Hopefully he would share this advice with everyone that he sits with in the dayroom so that they too will get the message.

Then again, why trouble prisoners’ sense of wellbeing? Doing time is hard enough without having to confront the ugly truth about what the future holds when one is set free.

Better to leave them in the dayroom where they can continue pretending to be sorcerers, and entrepreneurs, and attorneys. Better to leave them to their fantasies.

Jeremiah Bourgeois is a regular contributor to TCR, and an inmate in Washington State, where he is currently serving 25 years to life for a crime committed when he was 14. He will be eligible to go before the parole board in 2017. He welcomes comments from readers.