The other day I was in Walmart when a little girl, maybe 8 or so, struck up a conversation. Her mom smiled at me; I shook both their hands as we all chatted next to our carts. It was a nice, organic moment, the kind of spontaneous human interaction I’d almost forgotten about over the past decade while I was in prison.
As we went our separate ways, I saw a police officer walking into the store and felt my stomach drop. Did I just violate the conditions of my parole?
I panicked. Because I’m registered as a sex offender, I’m prohibited from having contact with minors. Something as normal and mundane as that conversation could send me back to prison, because I’m not allowed to be normal and mundane. I called my parole officer—better for me to report it to her immediately than for it to come out later on a polygraph. She didn’t answer. I called seven more times.
The next day she called me back and said it’d would be okay. There had been other adults present; I’d reported the incident; it was considered accidental contact. But I remained shaken—how could I have been caught off-guard so easily? I knew the terms of my parole. I’d been so prepared. But I was realizing that my frame of reference for those preparations wasn’t the free world; it was prison. Avoiding contact with children had seemed like an easy enough thing to do, because in prison children don’t walk up to you unexpectedly.
When you’re in a cage, every hour of every day is regimented. Spend your whole adult life that way and it’s hard not to mistake it for self-sufficiency.
“Finally having your freedom is like a fresh piece of air, but at the same time it comes with some cost,” Princess, who was released in 2017 after eight years of incarceration, told Filter. “Always looking over your shoulder [because] you’re used to hearing lockdown … hearing people fight … having your heart race, thinking an officer gonna stop you and tell you to go back to your dorm.”
When you’re in a cage, little happens spontaneously. Every hour of every day is regimented. The department of corrections controls what time you get up, go to meals, go to work, go outside, go to pill line, go to bed. As much as we might inwardly rage at that structure, spend your whole adult life inside it and it’s hard not to mistake it for self-sufficiency.
“The daily routine was hard,” Princess, said. “You’re not locked up anymore but … it sure takes a while to adjust.”
In the weeks since I was released in September, I’ve found myself almost immobilized by the sheer volume of possibilities involved in day-to-day tasks that I hadn’t thought would be obstacles. Figuring out how to feed myself. Figuring out how to make friends. I was released into a part of the state where I’d never been and don’t know anyone. I see people my age smile at me as they pass by at Walmart, or in the waiting room at a doctor’s office, and think, How am I supposed to make friends with these people? For starters, a lot of them have kids.
“The only place I was able to make somewhat decent friends, that was rehab.”
But I also don’t know how to form genuine connections with people who don’t get that I was snatched away from the world at 19. Almost everyone I know well enough to have a casual conversation with has been incarcerated; most of them still are.
“The only place I was able to make somewhat decent friends, that was rehab,” Christian, who was released in early 2023 after four and a half years in prison, told Filter. It’s easier to talk to people who share some of your experience.
Institutionalization isn’t something that leaves your mind and body the moment it’s over. I hate to say it, but I was good at prison. I’m a person who likes rules, and once I know what the rules are, I work well within them. Now the rules are what I make them, but they’re also what the parole board makes them. I’m learning it’s not easy to reconcile the two.
“You’re free to do what you will, as you please, but then when it’s time to follow the rules then that’s challenged, so you’re supposed to go against yourself,” Christian said. “I mean, look, I don’t have all the answers. I don’t know why you’re even asking me. I don’t know.”