Image by Alex Reyes
I got out of prison in January 2015 after of a 25-year sentence. The first thing I did on the outside was eat an entire meat lover’s pizza. I’d been thinking about how that pizza would taste for years, and I had no qualms about broadcasting that desire to my cellmates and convicted colleagues. When I was locked up, I wanted everyone to know I planned on getting out, and that I also had a reasonable goal I’d make good on. And I did just that.
In truth, most prisoners talk about reentry during their incarceration. It’s something to look forward to; something that keeps you going. The real world is the carrot dangling in front of you, preventing you from going off the rails and doing something that adds to your sentence. When prisoners talk about reentry, the conversation can get very animated, very fast. Many prisoners talk about what girls they’re going to sleep with, how fucked up they’re going to get on drugs, and the money they’re going to get when they hit the streets.
Of course prisoners know what when they get out, but VICE talked to a selection of prisoners and former prisoners about what they want or wanted to do before reality set in.
40-Year-Old Former Hells Angels from San Francisco
Currently Serving Ten Years at Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) Sheridan in Oregon for Possessing a Homemade Bomb and Explosive Materials
Scheduled for Release in 2017
Of course there’s the joke of what will be the first thing you do when you get out, but that’s on the surface. Deep down people who’ve done a chunk of time are more afraid of what they’re gonna do, in the sense of not being ready for it mentally. It’s a drastic change to re-enter the real world. It can be more nerve wracking than anything I’ve seen. It’s weird and it’s almost like a fear of going home.
Then you got other cats who are just stuck on the wrong things: drugs, robbing, stealing, the next hustle… To me, that’s ridiculous. But it’s not like many prisoners can talk about going home and starting a healthy lifestyle or whatnot because so many around you are just starting their sentence, are in the middle of it, or are never going home. There’s nothing more disrespectful than to talk or whine about going home to a guy who will never see the streets again.
43-Year-Old from Waterloo, Iowa
Served Ten Years for Possessing 36.1 Grams of Marijuana
Released in June 2013
I believe that inmates tend to have many fruitless conversations. The average, hour-long prison conversation is like this: I lie for 20 minutes, you lie for 20 minutes, and for 20 minutes we discuss each other lies. A lot of reentry talk among inmates is just talk because they have not formulated a plan to accomplish their goals. A goal without a plan is just a wish, and there is a lot of wishing and hoping in prison.
Prisoners talked a lot about coming home [when I was incarcerated], but few talked about positive reentry. These discussions happen everywhere, but are often just hopes. The dream of going home consume prisoners, especially those with an impending release date, but few of them are actually prepared. It was like they thought they’d just play it by ear. Not a lot of thought or effort went into [the discussions]. There are those whose reentry plan is to go back out and do the same thing that got them arrested for in the first place. I would dismiss these inmates as unintelligent and try not to pay attention to them.
When an inmate is programming and crafting his plan and actively preparing for his release, he is more inclined to be successful. When he has made plans with his people on the street to provide rides to find jobs and get to work, he has planned. When he has picked up a trade that he can utilize, he is successful. I had a job already lined up [before I was released]. I knew I would finish school and eventually do public speaking. It’s still a struggle, but I have done more than what I talked about doing.
31-Year-Old from Ohio
Currently Serving Ten Years at FCI Beckley in West Virginia on a Meth Conspiracy Charge
Scheduled for Release in 2017
The small percentage of people here who are talking about the right things are basically outcasts and don’t talk about these things in front of their “homeboys” because it is not the cool thing to do. These dudes don’t ever grasp the concept of right or wrong, or what a true man does. They’re barely even comprehensive of the principles or standards of society. After about 13 years of living in this shit, I am pretty tired of listening to people bullshit about the outside, and hoping to learn a better way to [embrace reentry].
Prisoners are focused on bitches, money, cars, or their status in the hood. They focus on what their dudes are going to throw them once they hit the street in order to get back on their feet. They’re not understanding the long-term of their situation. They live for the very moment and don’t give a fuck about their future. These inmates think it’s not “cool” to discuss anything positive (or even normal) in an open environment such as the chow hall or on the rec yard when all the homies are around. A lot of these dudes are planning their next come up.
After being away so long I realize what’s truly important in life: family and true friends. That’s what I want to talk about when I’m thinking about my release.
32-Year-Old from Memphis, Tennessee
Serving Ten Years at FCI Memphis for Selling Marijuana
Scheduled for Release Later This Year
I would guess about 85 to 90 percent of people in prison spend their time watching TV, playing games or sports, hanging out with their buddies, and sleeping their time away—all while bullshitting about the outside. Their conversations are always frivolous, talking about the Benz they had, the clubs they went to, and the dime pieces they fucked.
Imagine a guy who got locked up at age 30 with a 30-year sentence. He’s starting over in a strange new place with limited contacts and resources. To survive, he develops the mind and skill set of a convict, including the ability to talk about gangs, prison politics, and smuggling in drugs, tobacco, and cell phones into his new home. He gets caught up in it and never thinks about his future.
This whole experience is overwhelming for a lot of guys and they just give up and focus on the wrong stuff. Thank God they only gave me a ten piece—I can’t listen to the others bullshit for much longer.
Follow Seth on Twitter