No one likes to talk about the fact that “doing time” leaves the majority of returning citizens worse off than before they were incarcerated. Prior to my imprisonment, I had a very successful consulting business and I lived a solidly middle-class life. I worked hard, I traveled, and I gave back to my community and my church. I never forgot the poverty and abuse that enveloped me during my childhood and early teen years.
When I was preparing to move from seventh to eighth grade, I came home with my list of pre-selected classes—we were tracked and I was on the gifted and talented circuit. I was able to choose two electives. My mother and I had a horrible relationship that was filled with physical, verbal, and emotional violence on her part. On my part, it was fueled by reluctance to just “keep my mouf shut,” as my mother put it. However, once in a while I would play nice with her. On this particular evening she was sitting in her black leather recliner chair—it was part of a pair, but its partner was in another home with my “no-count cheatin’ stepfather—napping before going to her third job.
“Ma, I needa figa out what Ima take fo’ my ’lectives next year.” (This was before I learned to assimilate and forget my first language—that would come a little more than two years later). My mother opened her eyes, sat up and responded, “Take typin’, Cupcake. As long as you kin type you neva gonna be outa job or havta clean no white folks home.” Then she fell asleep. Normally, when I asked her these questions, I was just humoring her. But something happened that evening. I looked at her tired, skinny frame. My eyes lingered on her cracked and peeling hands, and I saw a future that scared the shit out of me. I checked off Typing I and Spanish I.
During high school, I was placed in foster care with well-to-do families. I went to college, and I wanted for nothing financially because the money that used to go to my foster parents became my stipend as a young adult in “independent living” until I was 21. However, I had no family to return to because my last foster family left me while I was in my senior year of high school. They moved away to another state and did not take me with them.
I spent my holidays and summers with my college boyfriend’s family. I worked as a temp and put my typing and computer skills to use. Whenever I would sign up with a temporary employment agency, they would give a typing test and completely flip out that I was black and smart and could type over a 100 wpm with fewer than four errors. My mother was right. In my adulthood, I was never out of a job because, when times were hard, I could fall back on my typing skills and do administrative and executive assistant work. I have never cleaned anyone’s house for a living. In fact, there was a time when I was financially solvent enough to hire a housekeeper.
My mother was right until now—post-prison. I am now as poor as I was before I went into foster care. I am poorer than I have ever been in my entire adulthood, and I am recently homeless. Prison did not just leave me worse off financially; it caused my mental state to deteriorate to how it was when I was in foster care. Throughout my high school years, I attempted suicide several times. I spent years before my first attempt planning my own death.
While incarcerated, everyday was a battle to live. There, I was sexually bullied and physically attacked on two occasions. In my experience, this is what happens when you report your attackers in prison: The administration arranges for you to be sent to a higher security prison. And when you are attacked or threatened at the higher security prison and you report it, they lock you away in the Segregated Housing Unit (SHU). In the SHU, you spend 23 hours a day in a cell for five days a week and the entire weekend. You get one 15-minute call per month.
When I was not locked in the SHU, I was put on suicide watch. There were times when I was put on suicide watch in retaliation for submitting grievances alleging I was being harassed by an officer. Suicide Watch consists of a big blue quilted gown that is accurately named the “Turtle Suit”; a quilted blanket; a cold, cold cell (so cold my fingertips turned blue); and psychiatric help in which the psychologist (if you are lucky to have one instead of an intern) yells questions about your mental well-being through the steel door. I stopped talking and eating for days at a time. Ultimately, this punishment would cause me to become suicidal.
While I was not without my mental health woes pre-prison, my suicidal ideation and anxiety had never approached what I felt in prison. No one can survive that environment without internalizing the daily subjugation of dehumanizing treatment. The threat of violence was always present (from officers and inmates). The trauma from prison has caused my self-worth to deteriorate. I suffer from anxiety, panic attacks, and flashbacks daily.
I am employed very part-time with an organization and they know my story, respect me for who I am, and acknowledge my gifts. Yet on my own, I cannot even get an interview with a temp agency. I cannot pass a background check for housing, and even if I could, my income puts me well below the poverty line and I cannot afford my own place.
Prison does not rehabilitate; that propaganda is a lie. I have been home from prison for almost a year, but I am still not free. Prison has impoverished me financially and mentally, and so I cling to the hope of having a life worth living.