AUGUST 25, 2008
The doors of the prison open. Yuma, a hot day, but Manny’s free. He’s said his goodbyes to friends. Karista is waiting. They married while he was in prison. No history of living together. He’s got over $4000 in his pocket. Money earned from jobs he worked in prison. He was a dependable worker and one of the companies offered him a position as a supervisor upon release.
Being home isn’t what he expects. He might be safe but it doesn’t feel that way. He can’t sleep without the lights being on as they were the last twenty years. He can’t eat unless the chow is in a bowl. He can’t believe he’s not being watched by guards and inmates alike. It’s hard to change twenty years of living. He’s spent more time in prison than out. He’s on edge.
Manny went from a cell to a home with seven step-children of assorted ages he doesn’t know. He and Karista haven’t ever spent a night together before now.
Most everyone spends the years between 15 to 35 becoming adults. Making mistakes but growing. They learn to deal with every day challenges such as budgeting money, how to be in relationships, living with others, starting careers and families. Manny spent the time in a small cell. His time was structured for him. His choices few. Even simple things like eating. Eat the food provided or go hungry. He never lived in a college dorm or an apartment with roomates he chose. He didn’t have the slightest idea of how to parent children.
The supervisor job paid well, but it was in Yuma. Karista and her family lived in Tucson as did Manny’s parents. His parents had been without him for so long already. They were getting older and needed him. Four hours away was too far. Manny chose to came back to Tucson.
Once he rerturned to Tucson his biggest needs were a place to live and a job. Both nearly impossible for a person with a felony record. Harder for Manny’s who’s only work history is in prison. His near genuis IQ and a couple of bucks wouldn’t even get him a cup of coffee. And what is this Starbucks place anyway? $4.50 for coffee. Cells phones, videogames, computers, flat-screen tv’s, paying bills and shopping on the internet, Google, Facebook, instagram, e-bay.
There are only three jobs an ex-con can get: construction, janitorial and landscaping. It’s not even easy to get these. Manny first got a series of part-time or temporary gigs until he was able to land a job at a company stripping and waxing floors. Getting the job is only the beginning. At first his boss treated him with suspicion. He had to prove himself. Work harder than the next guy. Be there when the boss wanted him no matter how inconvenient.
Finding a place to live is another hassle. Almost all apartment buildings and even people who rent houses do background checks. Most won’t rent to you. The places that will are dumps.
Manny wanted to work with young people. To help them not make the choices he made. He’d been the chaplain’s assistant his last years in prison and liked helping people. He gave talks at the juvenile detention facilty and charter schools, but it was difficult to get time off and he couldn’t afford to miss work.
Manny never gave up.
Manny’s been out of prison for over eight years. His dream has come true. He has a job as a re-entry Coordinator for young men and women who are at-risk. He is on the Primavera Board and works with several other groups helping youth. He lives in a nice home.
Manny is the exception. Few people who get out of prison do this well. For many their family has abandoned them or their parents and extended family have died. Husbands and wives who wait for their spouse to get out of prison are the exception. The majority of prisoners have rarely seen their children since their incarcaration.
The people Manny knew from the neighborhood have moved on. Only one friend from his childhood kept in touch. His few friends now are other ex-cons in the same position he’s in. They can’t give advice, loan money or help find jobs.
To keep people from re-offending they need help. Manny’s program targets people from ages 18 to 24. There is room for only 40 participants. Since the US incarcarates more people than any other more people will be in this situation. They’ve paid their debt to society, but society still treats them as pariahs and deadbeats.