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The Lifers: Creating a Safe Space
As a former offender and convict, I know firsthand the challenges of reentry. While I served a relatively brief term (I was released at age 23), acclimating to "normal" society can be far more challenging for those reentering the community after decades of incarceration.
In response to the reentry needs of long-term offenders, in January 2013 I offered our space to a group of ex-offenders, all of whom had served a long period of incarceration for some type of homicide. We named this group the “Lifers” and the goal was to create an environment of mutual support. Participation was totally voluntary, with no contractual arrangement with the Department of Corrections. My role as facilitator was essentially to buy the pizza and get out of the way, offering limited input and direction, while allowing the group to take whatever direction the they would choose.
To date there have been more than 30 participants who have served anywhere from 16–36 years of incarceration in a single block of time. Some of these men have been in the community for as long as six years, and some as short as 60 days. Over the seven years the Lifers have been meeting there have been zero new crimes committed by anyone in the group.
Commitment and Camaraderie
What have we learned from this group? First and foremost, members reached a level of cohesion in a very short period of time. Even though they are extremely diverse in terms of their criminality and history, they are motivated and committed to each other. Having the shared experience of serving a long period of incarceration, many at the same time and in the same institution, they are reminiscent of people who have served together in combat situations, sharing camaraderie across personality types that is usually not seen in offenders. There appears to be a sense of responsibility and commitment to each other that is often missing in offender groups. Support for each other is a given and taken for granted.
Because they had adopted a resolute mindset that they may never get out of prison, when they were notified that release was a foreseeable achievable goal, they developed a sense of anticipation and excitement over the prospect. Once released this was tempered by disappointment and frustration over the familial, social, housing, and vocational challenges they faced on the outside.
In listening to the participants, I heard universal agreement that a feeling of isolation marks the biggest challenge. This relates back to the observed similarity to combat veterans. Their shared incarceration experience, as well as their crimes, render them feeling as though they are different. Like combat veterans they have experienced things they do not want to talk about with anyone else. But it’s important to note that those things do not necessarily relate to circumstances of their crimes or imprisonment, but more often frustration of trying to fit in and the physical and emotional challenges they face. It would be easy to chalk this up to not wanting to appear weak or inadequate to others. But it appears to be more a reflection of the intimacy they have developed with each other and their belief that their uniqueness means that only those who share those experiences will empathize and understand.
The Road to "Normal"
Change does not come easily to anyone. Imagine yourself in a strange land, with strange customs, and an unfamiliar language, faced with finding a way to blend in. At every stage of the release process there is a change, and for most, every change becomes a crisis, at least temporarily. For instance, most are released through a process that begins with minimum security in the institution, followed by placement in a work crew, followed by release to a half-way house and work release, followed by a less-structured living environment while continuing on work release, followed by intensive community supervision.
Each of these stages, as they become more familiar, become less stressful and over time and evolve into the new normal. But until they do, they are often a source of anger and fear. Life in prison was marked by a certain level of consistency. Adapting to inconsistency and the unknown can be a source of stress and frustration.
Whether or not to share one’s criminal and correctional history with others became the topic of discussion in a number of situations. The group seems to have an appreciation for honesty, but they still cautiously wrestle with openness. The range of input went from “don’t tell unless you absolutely have to,” to “tell after you’ve developed a relationship with someone,” to “tell the one person” whom would benefit from the shock value.
At this point in the reentry experience, virtually all of the participants see themselves as different. Most expressed a desire to simply be “normal.” One of the most interesting examples came from an individual who had been out of the institution for about two years. He had worked next to an elderly man for nearly the entire time he was in the community and had a friendly relationship with him. One day there was a news story on the radio about an offender and the elderly man opined that, “those people should never get out.” The group member said, “I’m one of those people.” The elderly man asked him what he did. The group member responded, “I took someone’s life.” The familiarity previously established resulted in a change in the older man’s attitude, instead of creating a barrier or separation.
Paying it Forward
Some group members have taken to providing care packages and critical information—such as bus routes, how to get a driver's license, and where to seek help with housing—to others when they are released. Some, usually those with connections who have been in the community for longer periods of time, have found gainful employment and housing. To the extent possible, they try to pass on to the others the opportunities they were given.
One individual spoke of how, during a time of extreme loneliness and frustration, he considered doing something that would return him to prison. He reluctantly shared that what stopped him was not concern for his family, but concern over the debt he owed to his victim and their family, along with the fact that he would be letting those who are coming behind him down, and possibly make it harder for them to win their release.
As a former offender, I know that people can present one way and ultimately act a different way to please their service providers. But as for The Lifers, it is difficult to see an incentive for doing so, unless they just like free pizza. They are already in the community, they are all presently in good standing with their release plans, and participation is voluntary. They are choosing to give up time that is normally set aside for recreation and rest. Participation provides fellowship with a group of people they share an accomplishment with; support, empathy; accountability, and advice for how to continue; and a release valve from the stress and feelings of isolation they may experience outside the group.