Before I began working with men and women navigating through the re-entry process, I never contemplated the challenges facing them upon their release from prison. My beliefs and opinions, concerning this population, were formed from a safe distance. Just get a job. Just stop abusing controlled substances. Just find a new group of friends. Simple. Needless to say, my beliefs and opinions have changed. The change occurred when I exchanged ‘a safe distance’ for involvement and investment.
To highlight, just one of the motivators responsible for my new perspective, I would like to share a story with you. This story concerns the re-entry journey of a woman attempting to leave former behaviors and choices behind and start fresh. I have chosen to give her a fictitious name, as this story is still playing itself out. In sharing her story it is not my intent to win-you-over to my way of thinking. However, if you find that your beliefs and opinions, concerning the formerly incarcerated, have been formed from a safe distance; take this opportunity to shorten that distance – if only a by a few feet.
Patrice is a woman in her mid-forties. The first time we met I was impressed with her wisdom and steely determination not to return to prison. Patrice was adamant that this time would be different. This was not her first
attempt at successfully re-entering the community following incarceration. Patrice is known, in the criminal justice system, as a habitual offender. For more than twenty years she has been in the revolving door of the correctional system; yet, she is quick to accept responsibility for her behavior and balks at the idea of making excuses for her actions. However, Patrice now realizes that most of her outward behavior has been a response to the inward pain and anger resulting from abuse inflicted upon her as a young girl. Women in prison often have significant histories of physical and sexual abuse, high rates of HIV, and substance abuse problems.
With a greater sense of self-awareness Patrice knew she would need a strong support system to assist in her re-entry. She applied to the Transitional and Recovery Coaching program and was placed on a team with women who would assist her in navigating this journey. It was obvious to Patrice’s coaches that she was highly motivated to succeed. She quickly secured employment and worked as much time as her employer would allow. The hard work didn’t stop when her shift was over. Patrice had determined to work hard at rebuilding relationships with her children.
More than 60% of women in state prisons have a child under the age of 18.
At times the stress to keep it all together was overwhelming; however, Patrice did not revert to former habits and behaviors that were detrimental to her and to those around her. She was determined that this time would be different.
herself from her past and those associated with it. However, she decided that the opportunity to see family members that she hadn’t seen in years outweighed the apprehension and she got in the car. An old family friend said that he would drive her and her daughters to see her family. The car they drove in was registered to Patrice but, she had a lifetime suspension on her driver’s license; so, she rode in the back seat with her four year old daughter. Before they arrived at the family get-together they were in an accident with another vehicle. No one was hurt in the accident. However, what Patrice didn’t realize, is that the gentleman who volunteered to drive her car didn’t have a valid license and wanting to avoid arrest accused Patrice of driving the vehicle. No other adults on scene could confirm or deny that Patrice was behind the wheel.
She was arrested for driving with a lifetime suspension and placed in the county jail.
In court Patrice pleaded not guilty. She was provided with an attorney and was sure that this situation would work itself out while she maintained her innocence. What Patrice discovered was that her criminal history, though behind her, was still attached to her. Her attorney informed her that with such an extensive criminal history it would be extremely difficult and costly to win her case. A plea agreement was offered. Ninety-six percent of all criminal cases go to plea agreement. Patrice continues to navigate this journey with resolve; however, the temptation to give up on herself and the thought that life will never be different is ever present in the shadows of her mind.
It is not my intent to invoke your sympathy. My hope is to raise your awareness and understanding. Patrice’s story is not unique. There are many men and women, returning from prison, who have the determination to change and to start fresh; however, the past refuses to release its grip on their lives. Society not only expects them to repeat past behaviors, it defines them by their past behaviors. Often, all someone needs is the chance to prove that they have indeed changed. I encourage you to give the formerly incarcerated that chance. Who knows, this time may actually be different.