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One of my favorite movies of all time is the incredible 1994 film The Shawshank Redemption starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman. Of course, I’m not alone, as the movie is at the top of numerous “greatest movies” and “favorite movies” lists.
I bring this up because one of the most memorable scenes in the movie for me is when elderly inmate Brooks is paroled after serving 50 years in prison, but he cannot adjust to the outside world and eventually hangs himself.
It’s truly a moving scene, and one that was not part of the source material, Stephen King’s short story Rita Hayworth & Shawshank Redemption. But, it was an accurate portrayal of just how difficult life can be for someone who has been incarcerated for decades when they are all of the sudden released into the free world. Everything you know changes immediately, and that can freak you out.
Just think about it for a minute. Can you imagine what your reaction would be if you went to bed in 1994 and woke up in 2019? I was only locked up for four years, and my case lasted in the courts for two years before that. By the time it was all said and done, six years had passed, and it felt like I lost every one of those years because I wasn’t able to live life as a normal citizen.
During that time, technology changed so quickly that it left me behind, and my friends and family had major life events that I missed. My niece and nephew went from little kids in first and second grade to middle schoolers.
There was a brand new President, new stores in my hometown and old stores that closed. I didn’t have any money because I went broke fighting my case and then didn’t have an income when I was in prison.
I had no car, no place to live, and no property except for the box I walked out of prison with. To make things worse, the Cubs had actually won the world series! Also, the crime I was convicted of then is now legal in more than half of the country. It really was a whole new world.
So, all of that brings me to today’s topic: how do prisoners react to getting out of prison after decades inside?
In this blog post, I will cover the following topics:
In the prison I was incarcerated in, there was one inmate working in the canteen who had been locked up since 1994. She was serving 25 years and was paroled in 2017.
When she went in, mobile phones were huge contraptions hooked up in your car or big bricks that looked like something Zack Morris or Gordon Gecko would carry. The internet wasn’t a thing yet, and everyone watched movies on VCRs with VHS tapes that they rented from their local Blockbuster.
TVs were big tubes, radio was something you could only get on the FM or AM dial, and The Simpsons were only in their third season. There was no such thing as a podcast, YouTube, Instagram, Google, or Amazon.
The only exposure this longtimer had to new technology for 23 years was through television, but it was something she had only seen and not used. I remember her telling me how excited she was to get a cell phone and use the internet, but she was incredibly scared.
The only life she knew for more than two decades was a life that was completely controlled and regulated by corrections officers. It was hard enough for me to endure it for four years, I can’t imagine 23 years.
Otis J.ーan inmate who served 40 years in prisonーsaid this about being released in 2015 after spending decades behind bars:
“I saw all these people on the street talking to themselves, I thought I was bugging out. Someone finally told me that they were talking into earpieces, they were phones. So then I started thinking that there were secret agents all over the place, because the last time I was in society, those were the only people who had equipment like that. I stood on the corner for two hours, semi-hypnotized, just frozen.”
The majority of inmates who have been locked up for a long period of time will tell you that they are “institutionalized,” which means that they are so used to living in an extremely structured environment that the idea of freedom is scary.
When they do get released, things don’t usually go well for them because they are so used to having meals prepared (and sometimes delivered) everyday. They also have a regular laundry service for uniforms and bedding, don’t have to pay rent or bills, and don’t have to worry about sticking to a budget because there is no income or outgo.
Everything in prison is timedーwhen you go to sleep, when you wake up, when you use the phone, when you watch TVーand every other form of entertainment is controlled by the prison (books, magazines, recreation).
So when you walk into the free world, it feels like absolute chaos. There are so many colors, noises, and people. Crowds make you uncomfortable, and having choices can literally make you freeze.
On the day of my release after four years in prison, I stood in front of the toothbrush and toothpaste choices at Walmart for about ten minutes because I was so overwhelmed.
If a longtimer doesn’t have a good support system of friends or familyーor someone in a halfway house or the parole office who is willing to helpーacclimating to the free world can be extremely difficult. You can have people tell you what things are like on the outside, but until you experience it for yourself, it’s nearly impossible to truly understand.
It takes time to adjust, and not just to material things and technology. What prison does to you mentally is brutal, and therapy is highly encouraged for every former inmate. Whether or not they get help is a whole different story.
Should there be special transition programs for longtimers to help them acclimate to the free world? Let us know in the comments below.
Sources: His first day out of jail after 40 years: adjusting to life outside https://fortunesociety.org/media_center/his-first-day-out-of-jail-after-40-years-adjusting-to-life-outside/
Natalie earned her Bachelors degree in Journalism from the University of Kansas, and has worked in television and radio during her career. When she was a 19-year-old sophomore at KU, she got her first on-air job as a sports reporter for a CBS-TV affiliate. In 2013, she was sentenced to 30 years in prison for the possession and production of marijuana. She was released in 2017. We've kept her last name off of our website so that she does not experience any professional hardship for her contributions.
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