After staring at a wall for almost half of my life, being able to look out the windows of the halfway house at the world but not being able to go out and experience it was maddening.
When you’re being escorted out of a federal court room in shackles and handcuffs, after being sentenced to almost two decades behind bars, you can almost feel the life ooze out of your pores. The pronounced slam of a gavel drives home the fact you’re not in Kansas anymore, while one hope creeps its way into your brain: the day those cuffs come off and you’re free. This image is your savior, your best and only friend to keep you company throughout the brutally unforgiving years of violence, isolation, and solitude. Visions of beautifully simple things like going to the park or eating strawberry pancakes shoot through your psyche in bright shining lights onto the faded white graffiti laced brick walls of your 9-by-6-foot cell of despair.
All this promise makes it all the more devastating when that magical day arrives for the nightmare to end, and you realize just how far you are from getting out of the rabbit hole.
“Have you ever played a PlayStation? Hell, have you even used a cell phone?” These are the words the middle-aged Latino case manager told me through the battered food slot inside the cell door of the Special Housing Unit.
“Someone like you, I wouldn’t give more than 4 months. The world has passed you by…but good luck.”
These words of encouragement came from someone who spent almost as much time in the Bureau of Prisons as I have. A man who has witnessed firsthand how hard it is to adjust to a world that will chew you up and spit you right back. He wasn’t talking about my transition back into the free world. He was talking about the federally funded center that was in charge of restoring my sanity.
Institutionalization, PTSD, and Post Incarceration Syndrome
PTSD and its sister syndrome, PICS (Post Incarceration Syndrome), are disorders in which a person has difficulty recovering after experiencing or witnessing a terrifying event. The condition may last months or years, with triggers that can bring back memories of the trauma accompanied by intense emotional and physical reactions.
During my 15 years of incarceration, I experienced and witnessed atrocities that would make most war veterans cringe. Divided racial lines and the total disregard for human life were the first things that greeted me behind the grimy walls down in the swamps of Louisiana, USP Pollock. The “slaughterhouse of the south” averaged 40 stabbings a month, while incurring 16 murders in an 18-month span. Desensitization set in rapidly when watching a stabbing was as common as watching a baseball game. This was just the first of four penitentiaries in which I was beaten, stabbed, isolated, and herded throughout half of my life.
While President Bush was fighting his wars overseas, and smartphones, text messaging, and iPods were shaping humanity, I was envisioning a breathtakingly beautiful sun setting over the ocean. The sound of waves crashing danced through my ears, as I felt the cool wet sand beneath my feet. When President Obama was still fighting the war, and Google, Facebook, and YouTube took over society, I was sitting in solitary confinement, my stomach touching my ankles, as I dreamed of the family dinners at my parents’ house. The four cheeses of mom’s famous lasagna made my mouth water, as I imagined the smiling faces of better years sitting around the table listening to Dad’s old war stories. As President Trump was halfway through his reign of terror, the cuffs finally came off and I was released. But little did I know, the nightmare was far from being over.
Institutionalization is a gradual normal reaction to the unnatural and abnormal conditions of prisoner life. The more extreme, harsh, dangerous, or otherwise psychologically taxing the nature of the confinement, the deeper the damage that will be done. During this process, a prisoner incorporates the norms of prison into their habits of thinking, feeling, and acting. It renders some people so dependent on external constraints that they gradually lose the capacity to rely on internal organization and self-imposed personal limits to guide their actions and restrain their conduct.
When I was released from the SHU in Big Sandy Kentucky on July 29, 2017, the world seemed to be in hyperdrive. My parents and sister, along with the girlfriend I’ve never held, laughed as I bounced around the car like a dog in heat. The speed of everything left me spinning as I tried to comprehend the tiny screen in my hands that was speaking directions towards the home I’ve never seen. Inside that car I felt alive for the first time in over a decade and a half. Then we stopped a block short from my residence, and all the rules that I’d just broken by being with my family drove away with five minutes to spare, as a whole new nightmare began.
Bait and Switch
According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons: “Residential reentry centers provide a safe, structured, supervised environment, as well as employment counseling, job placement, financial management assistance and other programs and services. RRC’s help inmates gradually rebuild their ties to the community and facilitate supervising ex-offenders activities during this readjustment phase.”
When I walked into the reentry center in downtown Pittsburgh, I wasn’t greeted with a homecoming of old friends and relatives like in the movies. Instead, I sat in a drearily filthy break room as paramedics wheeled off a semi-conscious reentrant to a waiting ambulance. These overdoses, ranging from heroin to K-2, would become a normal part of my daily routine. Once I made my way to the seventh of eight floors, each floor packed to capacity with clueless ex-cons all trying to breathe free fresh air, the prison mentality quickly set back in.
My case manager greeted me in her tiny cluttered office and gave me a list of all the rules and regulations that make readjustment damn near impossible. No smartphones, riding in cars, or being ANYWHERE without approval a week ahead of time. If I wanted to stop at 7-Eleven for a cup of coffee in the morning on my way to work, I would be in violation of my release. I also received the bonus of not being allowed to publish any of my writing or leave the city limits. She concluded her orientation with the added kick to the nuts of twenty five percent of my pay getting kicked back to the house for the opportunity to feel the sunshine on my face for the first time in a decade and a half.
I also was given the one-time warning about being late. If I was more than 5 minutes late back from a pass, whether it be a late bus or a broken leg, it was back to the box to finish out the remainder of my sentence. Just riding on public transportation is enough to give me a panic attack after years of isolation. The need to sit with my back against the wall is uncontrollable while my hypervigilance runs wild surveying everyone and everything. When you add a traffic jam to that equation, it’s almost debilitating. Going from a world with nothing but time, to one that will literally put you in a cage if it’s mismanaged, was and still is one of the hardest things to deal with after my release.
During the 15 years of my incarceration, I lived with a lot of different people. A redneck from Wyoming to a skinhead from Seattle, I’ve been forced to share a bathroom with the best of them. No matter where they were from, there was one thing in common: I didn’t like any of them. Even Mother Teresa is going to get on your nerves if you’re stuck in a broom closest with her 24 hours a day for months on end.
Standing on the Edge of Freedom
In the late 70’s, psychologist Bruce K. Alexander conducted his Rat Park study. In this study he took lab rats and housed them in two different environments. In the first, “skinner boxes” (solitary confinement), they were completely deprived of everything, even movement was difficult. The second environment housed the rats in a space 200 times bigger, with wheels, and boxes and other rats to interact with. Inside both settings were two different water bottles. One filled with narcotics to numb the pain that will run through any being under such harsh conditions, and the other without. Each time when the rats are housed in skinner boxes, they go right for the drugs. But, when they’re in rat park with all their friends, free to make decisions and live a good life, they always chose the clean water.
After staring at a wall for almost half of my life, being able to look out the windows of the halfway house at the world below but not being able to go out and experience what I’ve been dreaming about for so long was maddening. Having that freedom dangling in my face, after coming so far, was heartbreaking. After years of dreaming about what you want to do, where you want to go, who you want to see, and then discovering you won’t be doing any of those things for a long time, it absolutely puts you right back into that ‘I don’t give a fuck’ mentality.
Institutionalization can be taken to extreme lengths or become chronic and deeply internalized so that even though the conditions of one’s life have changed, many of the once functional but now counterproductive patterns remain.
I spent 14 months inside the halfway house after my release. It almost seemed to last as long as the 15 years that I did behind the walls of our fine penal system. During that time, I wasn’t allowed to go to the park, or take my girlfriend out on a date. I couldn’t sit down for those family meals or see that sunset on the beach, but I made it through it.
I absolutely know that I suffer from PTSD and PICS as a result of my incarceration, and I’m far from the only one who suffers from these syndromes. Anyone would feel the same way as I do if they grew up deep inside the belly of the beast. Who knows if the hypervigilance, paranoia, and anxiety will ever allow me to be at ease when I’m out in society. It took me getting out of the system completely before I could even begin to heal.