Having worked with an incarcerated population in a prison library, I want to applaud the men I know who have been released back into society. My knowledge is anecdotal: I don't know a thing about double-blind studies. But I find that the men I worked with who have since paroled prove that human beings can change and grow and thrive.
Most of these men were serving life sentences. Most of them, many while they were teenagers, had killed someone. They became eligible for parole consideration after they'd served a certain percentage of their sentence. Most had not been found suitable for parole at their first hearing.
Prior to recent reforms and changes to state law, parole hearings were for show: Very few lifers were ever found suitable for parole by the board, and if they were, the governor overturned the decision. In the past, prisoners hardly bothered preparing for these hearings, since the outcome was preordained.
When I worked in the library, however, prospects were changing. Men were emerging from their hearings with dazed looks, having been told they were going home. They had to prove that they were not a danger to society, that they had owned their crimes and participated in rehabilitative and educational programming, and that they had lined up housing and jobs on the outside.
The library was gradually full of serious researchers. Hope is a powerful motivator, as formerly hopeless men supported each other through self-help groups. Over the ensuing years, I was privileged to witness real change, to provide information and resources, and most of all, to hear the good news of someone's parole suitability.
Since my retirement, I've reconnected with some heretofore library patrons through Facebook. (See? Facebook is good for something.) I've been happy for their successes and sad for their disappointments. While I have permission to share the following stories, the arbitrary initials protect privacy.
The stigma of a felony record often dashes a parolee's expectations. "My experience out here has been rejection of several job opportunities because of my past," says W., "but I shrug it off and continue my journey." W. is grateful for the coping skills he worked on while he was incarcerated. "Losing loved ones, jobs, relationships can be very difficult. But what I have learned is that things happen for a reason and it's up to us how we respond."
While practical considerations like housing, transportation and employment are challenging for parolees to secure, their highest hurdle can be relationships with other people. The obvious issue facing men upon their release is, as E. points out, "DATING. As an ex-lifer, when is the right time to tell someone you were incarcerated for decades and not scare them off? I have found that it's best to let them know right away and let them make the choice to continue to get to know who you are now. Finding the right woman is not an easy task, so for all of us who have, we are blessed."
"The issue I've dealt with is family," says L. "Because me being a repeat offender, I've lost a lot of their trust, and they've built walls to protect themselves so they wouldn't be hurt again ... But little by little they see the change. They're opening up more to me as I'm more involved in their lives."
P. is experiencing the hitches that many blended families face. "I've learned to keep what's real in the forefront ... what's hardest is dividing my time between my family and the new family I'm building with the woman I'm with. Splitting our holidays or vacation. All new to me and can be mind boggling."
Parole comes with many conditions and restraints: It is not exactly freedom. Regular meetings, substance testing, random searches and GPS monitoring may apply, depending on the individual. Still, parole is better than the shackles of prison. Not everyone manages well. M. was an early and inspiring success, landing a steady job and marrying an old flame. His online posts highlighted his achievements, even simple ones like a barbecue with friends. Sadly, M. did not keep his distance from old addictions, something 12-step programs in prison taught him is a one-day-at-a-time proposition requiring his constant vigilance. M. is back in prison.
In the light of the many burdens and blessings inherent in parole, W. expresses a sentiment prevalent among this particular Facebook group: "My true support and people I lean on is my lifer family, who have been with me and continue to be there for me. I am so grateful for all of you."
May these shared words encourage us to hold a good thought for the people who, having paid their debt to society, now seek to rejoin it. May we support their efforts by extending to them the dignity of a second chance.