Aging cons who survived the causes and consequences of long-term incarceration are being released from prison cross the country. They are paroled into a society full of high-speed diverse technology while still carrying the stigma of an ex-felon, and the transition is not easy.
That was the focal point of a recent report from the Urban Institute. The 2017 report, “A Matter of Time: The Causes and Consequences of Rising Time Served in America’s Prisons,” highlights a current legal environment that places people in prison for long periods and shares the stories of several who made it through.
“I’m a human being,” said Ramona Brant, a formerly incarcerated woman whose story was shared in the Institute report. “Each one of us has a story to tell, and if you would just take the time to listen, you would be amazed at how similar I am to you.”
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These inmates have been waiting for their freedom for a long time, but some are fearful because they don’t know what their future holds and taking that first step out can be daunting.
One stated purpose of imprisonment is to rehabilitate people so they can re-enter society, but the reality is it punishes the convicted person for their conduct. The Urban Institute reported extremely long prison stays can exact devastating costs from the persons incarcerated.
Case in point: in 1995 Brant was sentenced to life without parole for her first conviction for drug conspiracy—a mandatory penalty that even the sentencing judge thought was too severe, the article reported.
For 21 years she said, she missed out on being a mother to her babies. Now her babies have babies.
Brant was the best mother that she could be. At the start of every year, she wrote her kids’ teachers, asking them to understand the children’s situation.
When President Obama granted Brant clemency in 2016, she paroled to Charlotte, N.C., at the age of 51.
“Everything surprised me,” Brant said. “Everything was new. Everything was different.”
For the first time, Brant saw flat-screen TVs, filled out paperless applications and saw backup cameras in vehicles. She had to learn many common social skills all over again.
“Everything surprised me, everything was new. Everything was different”
Cell phones are now in everyone’s pocket. Parking meters accept credit cards. And subway tokens are long gone.
But adapting to those changes pales in comparison to the challenge of returning home after decades in prison and starting over at an age when most people are already established in life.
Stanley Mitchell experienced turmoil upon his release at the age of 63, said the article.
After his release from serving a 35-year term, he could never obtain tranquility. Nightmares kept him up at night, and knocks on the front door spooked him.
Not everyone who’s been inside for a long time loses the life they had before.
Nelson Rivera served 17 years in prison before his release at the age of 45. Even though he and his wife ended their marriage while Rivera was incarcerated, his children stood by him.
“I have four children,” Rivera told the Institute. “There were times where I felt like I was going to lose my family—my children mainly—and thank God, we stood strong.”
The Urban Institute’s report talked about the need for a serious change to the criminal justice system in this country. It presented possible alternatives to long-term sentences and proposed approaching criminal justice from a new angle.
But while drastic reform may be possible, it hasn’t come yet, and there are people still serving long sentences and being released into a new and challenging world. More robust and accessible reentry programs, rehabilitative services, and government support are needed for the aging former, and current, inmates to succeed after incarceration.