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Coming Home: an Open Letter to 6,000 Soon-to-be-Released Drug War Prisoners From an Ex-Con

For those 6,000 prisoners who will soon be released, I want to share with you my story of being released from prison when I received executive clemency after serving 12 years. I hope it will give you some insight on what to expect.

Being released from prison was not what I expected. The freedom was swift and furious. I felt as though I had been slapped on my face with it. There was no preparation, and because of this it brought on an array of emotional highs and lows. During that time I had struggled with the most mundane tasks, like using a cell phone or flushing an automatic toilet. Its cumulative effects were psychologically devastating. The way of life I once knew was now gone, along with my friends and support base. I then discovered I was alone in a new world that had drastically changed without me.

The days leading up to my release from Sing Sing prison were full of anticipation and my mind was riddled with doubt. To be honest, I was really scared. My main concern was the same as that of everyone who had done a long stretch in prison as they approached their release date. I questioned myself and asked if I would be able to survive life on the outside. The question haunted me.

I was re-entering the real world with only the clothing on my back and a few dollars in my pocket. But little did I know that I also brought along with me all the coping mechanisms I used to survive imprisonment. A simple walk in the neighborhood, or a train ride, was elevated to a state of panic because of the fear I might violate parole and return to prison.

This reality came to me one day when I was riding a crowded train and a passenger bumped me from behind. I automatically went into a defensive mode. I gripped the overhead hand rail tightly, as my heart beat elevated and my adrenaline started to pump into my veins. I knew back in prison a simple bump could lead to a brutal confrontation. As I calmed myself down I then observed several other passengers being bumped twice as hard as I was. They did not react at all, making me realize that bumping passengers was a way of life in a New York City subway train.

I soon found out that reestablishing and developing relationships became awkward and painful. I searched for a solution to my problems and realized that I did not leave behind those 12 years of hard time. I had lived a decade of life in an environment where survival mechanisms and behaviors were hardwired into my daily existence. This changed me profoundly and I discovered how difficult it was to forget prison life. Being hardwired for survival inside was a good thing, but in the free world it was another matter, especially when these mechanisms would surface suddenly and without warning.

The tools that were once life-saving had now become a tremendous burden to me as I tried to get my life back together. Because of this it created roadblocks at every level of my existence. Carrying the stigma of being an ex-offender is debilitating. From being denied employment and housing, to not knowing how to establish healthy relationships, life becomes exceedingly difficult. And maintaining my freedom, I soon found, was no easy task while wrestling with the haunting memories of my past imprisonment.

Going back to prison was the last thing I wanted. But I realized that I could go back inside, at any time, at the whim of my parole officer. I witnessed this the first week I reported to my parole officer. The conditions of my parole dictated that I had to report to parole twice a week, with periodic drug testing, and find employment. My parole officer was friendly for the most part, but she had a case load she couldn’t handle. Because of this she took no bullshit. She was a tough cop who made it clear she had the power to put me back in prison if I ever stepped out of line.

While waiting in her office I sat and watched her as she was questioned a young black parolee that had messed up. She asked him a routine question that she asked all parolees: “Have you had any police contact?” Police contact was any negative interaction with law enforcement. He replied, “Yes,” and the mild mannered parole officer suddenly went ballistic. She knew already that the guy was a suspect in a robbery and ordered him to stand. She grabbed the parolee by the collar and forcefully pushed him until he reached the wall. “Nose on the f—ing wall and spread ‘em,” she said. The parolee did not resist. She handcuffed him and yelled, “You’re going back in.” I was scared shitless at that point and pissed my pants out of fear, just thinking about returning to prison. I had learned that freedom was not what I expected.

So for all those that will be coming home, you should remember that freedom is precious, and in order to maintain it, you have to work hard to keep it. It’s something I discovered during the 17 years I have been free.

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Anthony Papa is the Manager of Media and Artist Relations for the Drug Policy Alliance and the author of This Side of Freedom: Life After Lockdown.

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