Home now, Stanley Mitchell often asks about old friends he hasn’t seen in a while, only to be reminded that they died while he was in prison. But those 35 years behind bars felt separate from the real world, he said, and so those losses—once intangible and distant—are now taking their toll.
“In 35 years, can you imagine the relatives that I’ve lost?” Mitchell said. “It’s not real. What’s real is that you’re confined to a cell at night. The other stuff is out there.”
Being in prison for 20, 30, or 40 years means that loss is inevitable. Elvin Garcia lost his younger brother while in prison. Nelson Rivera lost his mom. Ramona Brant watched as her children were raised by strangers after her parents died.
And when those incarcerated for a long time are released, they’re sent back into a world that seems foreign and strange in small ways and insurmountable in big ones. Cell phones are ubiquitous. Parking meters have changed. Subway tokens are a thing of the past. But those changes pale in comparison to the challenges of finding a job, reconnecting with now-grown children, and trying to reconcile with so much lost time.
Prison stays aren’t meant to be easy, but long stays that span decades or that have no end date in sight can exact devastating costs.
When you don’t have no hope and you think this is just going to be it for you, it obviously affects you mentally and, in some cases, physically. I’ve seen individuals stop taking care of theirself, and they develop all kinds of crazy diseases, diabetic, high blood pressure. And after a while, they just die. A lot of people that have life sentences die before they make parole.
When Monica Jahner first saw the prison where she would be housed, she thought it looked like a college campus. She was 22 and had been sentenced to life. The reality of her situation—and the fear—didn’t set in, she said, until she was put in solitary confinement (the only space available) and the door shut behind her.
Over 28 years of incarceration, Jahner’s health deteriorated.
“The fear of what was going to happen to you day to day based on who didn’t like you and who did and not having any options in making my own choices was traumatizing for me,” Jahner said. “That was the hardest part of doing time.”
The constant stress gave her ulcers, high blood pressure, and tachycardia. Jahner said she had to be rushed to the hospital regularly when her heart would beat dangerously fast.
“I could never relax,” she said. “You didn’t know when the dogs were coming in…to sniff for drugs. You never knew when the police were coming in to raid your room. …You were always living on the edge of fear.”
For some, shutting out the outside world is a way to survive, as Mitchell did when his wife died.
Prison is its own microcosm. Your world exists inside your walls. Yeah, you’re concerned if you have children: ‘How’s my daughter doing in school?’ or ‘I’d like to meet my son’s new fiancée.’ Of course, you’re concerned—‘How’s Grandma?’—but you try to, for the most part, keep your world [to] what goes on inside there, especially if you’re a life prisoner. You know you’re not going home in seven months.
Many of the people that we interviewed for this story said that the culture in men’s prisons in particular reinforced violent behavior and bred bitterness. They had to embrace that violence to survive—but in doing so, they risked racking up disciplinary sanctions that could keep them in prison longer. Some felt they transformed into people they no longer recognized.
Just to survive in there, you have to continue to indulge in violence. …I really wanted to start veering and fading away from that kind of lifestyle [of] always finding resolution through violence. I knew it wasn’t the answer, but in that environment, sometimes you have no choice.
I wasn’t a thug. I wasn’t a really rough kid. I was a drug addict. When I first entered prison, I just pretended to be a tough guy ’cause I was in no way a tough guy. After pretending for a little while, it became natural and it became real. I just ran with that for about 25 years. I was [thinking], ‘Man, I’d much rather be a shark than chum.’
“The first 25 years, I was just rotten. And the last 10 years, I got myself out of it. …I just got tired of everybody hating me. …I got tired of just being that guy. It was nice to get back to the person that I recognized as a kid.
“A lot of people, like, ‘Wow. I remember you from in there. Man, you’ve changed from what you were.’ I tell ’em, ‘No, not really. I just went back to what I was before I went into [prison].’
You’re not the only one doing time. Your family is. Your loved one is.
It was a three-hour drive for Nelson Rivera’s family to visit him in prison. Rivera considers himself fortunate that he wasn’t that far from home, at least compared with others in prison with him.
“Knowing that some families can’t afford to come stay or see [you],” Rivera said, “it’s just a mindbreaking thing. It will break you in ways that you never understood.”
Relationships are hard to maintain over long prison terms. Though Rivera tried to stay close to his family, he and his wife divorced.
My parents, they were there for me. They were there for me, and I felt bad. When they needed me the most, I failed them. I wasn’t there for them. I wasn’t there to see about their health needs or even preparing for their burial. I was not there. I was not there when it was most important. That’s something that I don’t beat myself up for, but it remains with me. Because I feel like I failed them.
I’ve seen individuals do long sentences…[and] by the time they’re released, both parents died. They have no immediate family left. No one.
In 1995, Ramona Brant was sentenced to life without parole for a drug conspiracy charge—her first offense—when her two sons were ages 3 and 4. Their father received the same sentence, leaving the boys with Brant’s parents.
Brant’s life sentence was a penalty, required by law, that even the sentencing judge said was too severe. When Brant first heard the sentence, she refused to accept it. She left it behind in the courtroom and would not carry it with her. She assured her boys that she would be home again, and she was right—but it would take 21 years and a pardon from the president. And, by that time, her boys were no longer boys.
From prison, Brant tried to stay connected to her kids. She sent money home from her commissary job to pay for their haircuts. At the start of every school year, she wrote to her sons’ teachers, asking them to understand the situation her kids were in, with both parents in prison.
“They were just suffering. …They didn’t have their parents to come to PTA. They didn’t have their parents to drop them off in the morning and pick them up at night. They didn’t have their parents to come and have lunch with them at school and show their parents off. They didn’t have that,” Brant said. “[I] just wanted [the teachers] to understand I’m absent…physically, but I’m there if you allow me to be there.”
Brant’s father died five years after she went to prison. Another five years later, her mom passed away and the children went to a group home. A man working at the group home later took the boys in through foster care, a kindness that Brant remains grateful for. But the time with her kids that she missed out on continues to haunt her.
“My arms would ache from not being able to pick them up and hold them. …I didn’t have children until late, and so I was excited to have these little mes, these mines…to give birth and to hold my child for the first time and protect them as best as I could,” she said. “Then I woke up one day and I was stripped of all of that.”
“I missed out on their first day of school. …I missed out on being able to encourage them to persevere. I missed out on being a mother—period. I feel like I was robbed of that opportunity because they were babies. And when I came home, they had babies. …It’s even hard now to know that I can never get those days back.”
It’s been over two years since Ramona Brant was granted clemency. Supporters and news cameras greeted her outside the prison gates when she was released. But after the celebration, she struggled adjusting to life outside.
Brant moved to a halfway house in Charlotte, North Carolina. She’d spend hours downtown just sitting on a bench, fascinated by people walking by with their eyes glued to their cell phones.
“Everything surprised me,” Brant said. “Everything was new. Everything was different. Flat-screen TVs. Laptops. Going to the bank with a card. Trying to ride the train. Filling out paperless applications. Going to the grocery store and scanning my own food, checking my own self out. Getting in a car and watching it have a camera to see how you’re backing up. Everything. I felt like I just landed here and I had to learn everything all over again.”
Returning home after decades in prison often means starting over at an age when most people are already established in life. It can mean looking for a job in your fifties with no work experience and the stigma of a criminal record. It can mean not having stable housing or a support system because you’ve outlived your parents or lost your partner. Many struggle with mental and physical health problems, drug addiction, and the shock of reentering society after prison has been their only home for years.
Even after I got home and had been in the house, I still went through a lot of different changes. Every time somebody knocked at the door, I would assume it was the police coming to get me, that they made a mistake. I was having these terrible dreams. I’d wake up in the middle of the night soaking wet, screaming.
I wasn’t scared of addiction. I wasn’t scared of prison. …But that tent underneath the bridge that smells like urine in those homeless camps—that’s what scared me. …I would think, ‘You're either successful or this is your option. You’re a man in your fifties with no family, coming out—to be honest, a fifth-grade education and no employable skills. …You’re either going to make it or that’s your next option.’
I pay taxes, but I can’t vote. I have taxation without representation. …The things that they say they want to help us do in terms of my transition back in society, the restrictions and the biases that are placed on us—if a person isn’t strong internally and doesn’t have a good social network, they’re bound to go back to what led ’em to the criminal justice system in the first place. I’ve seen it.
I mean, not to be able to know how to swipe a card or use the teller machine. …It was embarrassing. It was overwhelming, and at times it was really frightening. …Before, it was always, ‘I could do it by myself. I’m a big guy, don’t show no weakness. I’m a big, brawling guy. I can do it myself.’ I’m not afraid to admit today that I can’t do it by myself. …There’s so much I’m still learning. So much.
“I just felt there was a point, like after 15, 20 years…that I was ready to be released back out to society,” Garcia said. “Not just only for me, for any individual at such a young age that, mentally, they haven’t fully grown to their potential to make rational, logical decisions. I don’t think the way to go is just incarcerate them for 30 years.”