When you’re in prison, you’re not a real person. You’re like Pinocchio, waiting for the Blue Fairy to come and release you back into the real world, where you’ll once again be a real person. In the meantime, you’re state – or federal or county – property. You don’t get to choose anything, not even the color of the underwear you wear. You’re not a person, you’re a number. You’re not a human, you’re an inmate.blue fairy

So you wait anxiously for the day of your release, thinking that with your release you’ll once again be a real person. But then, when that joyful day comes, you realize that it isn’t quite that easy. After all, you’re still basically in the category of inmate – or maybe the subcategory of recently released inmate – but you aren’t quite a real person yet. You don’t have a job – and will probably have a very hard time getting one, parole still has you on a very short leash, you can’t vote, you probably can’t drive yet, and you feel like an imposter, a shadow of a person trying pretend to be whole and normal in the real world. Most of all, though, when people realize that you’ve just gotten out of prison – as they will do – they have a certain way of looking at you. It’s like they view your presence as temporary. In their eyes, you can see their assumption that soon enough you’ll be using drugs again or back in prison. It’s not that they don’t trust you, it’s just that they don’t trust you to stay in the real world.

Becoming a real person again takes time. There isn’t a Blue Fairy who can wave her wand and make it happen overnight. Finally, though, a year and a half after my release, today I realized that I once again feel like a real person. It’s not any one thing in particular, but a series of things that have slowly fallen in to place. I write for some local newspapers and meet all sorts of town supervisors and mayors – and they actually respect me. I have an editor that is at least somewhat reliant on my work to put out the paper every week. Sometimes, when I meet people, they actually tell me they’ve been looking forward to meeting me after reading my writing. Last week, I interviewed the captain at the jail where I did about half my sentence – and he actually asked me to do something for him, to cover an award that he thought needed some press. I’ve actually been asked to dog sit – people trust me with other life forms. I don’t have to ask people for rides everywhere – I finally got a license and am allowed to drive. Today, somebody actually contacted me about a speaking engagement. People actually want to read and hear what I have to say – and now when I talk to them, I don’t see that look in their eyes. I have people who trust me, people who rely on me. I have actual responsibilities beyond keeping my cell in compliance and making curfew. Sometime when I was busy trying to make it from one day to the next, the Blue Fairy came along and did her magic – and I’m finally a real person again.

 

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10 thoughts on “On Becoming a Real Person

  1. You are a ‘real-er’ person than many – with your attentiveness to the world around you – and your painfully honed (yet without self-pity) voice speaking out about the madness of this country’s prison system.

  2. I’ve been nothing less than impressed with what you’ve done since getting out of prison; getting and staying clean, writing your book, your freelance work, all of it. I used to worry about you, but I’ve since seen that I no longer have to. You’ve accomplished so much, and displayed so much strength. And it makes me love and admire you even more! You came out on the other side stronger than I could have imagined. And I have no doubt in my mind that you can handle anything that life throws at you! Even so, you can always count on me and Laura to have your back, no matter what!

  3. It’s true. People respect you and like you for the work you are doing. And I do rely on you, not just somewhat!

  4. This stuff is on my mind now b/c I’m doing academic work for a guy that works for the US DOC. I’m summarizing academic books and journal articles in the discipline of sociological criminology. I’m adding my own input and anecdotes from people I know.

    Some people have a similar reaction to being homeless. They feel like they’re seen as “less than” in the eyes of others.

    1. Interesting job. And yeah, I’ve heard people so that about homelessness as well. Needless to say, there’s a significant overlap between those demographics — the homeless and the formerly imprisoned.

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