I recently had a dream. Not in the spirit of MLKJ’s iconic address on the National Mall. This was more like a nightmare. In this cinematic drama of the sort, I was a fugitive from justice, no less than Harrison Ford as Dr. Richard Kimble evading the U.S. Marshals in the Andrew Davis film. I had done nothing wrong. Since my release from incarceration, I have very deliberately attempted to eschew any sort of evil and/or illegalities. I have paid my taxes on time, dutifully revalidated parking meters, and even crossed on the green and not in-between. In fact, I make a very conscious effort to have three “I”s to watch and regulate my conduct: If something is “i”llegal, “i”mmoral and/or “i”rresponsible, I try to steer clear away from any participation with or in it.
However, the one thing that I find very difficult to let go is the seemingly unshakeable notion that, like a child who has a disciplinarian parent who makes him walk the plank for the slightest indiscretion, a benign traffic stop or an inadvertent sensor left on a purchased item that alarms as I leave the store could trigger another arresting “time-out.”
Conspiracy thinking? Not at all. I know a multiplicity of men and women who have served their societal debts behind razor wire fences, in 6 by 9 cells, on a Ramen noodle diet, and are on no community supervision of any kind, but still feel like the Freddie Kruger of law enforcement is somewhere in the shadows waiting to take them back to the no-escape of the Department of Corrections located on Elm Street! She can surface in the arresting form of a vindictive (ex)girlfriend who now wants to take him to child support no sooner than he’s been home because he has chosen to be with someone else; if he lapses in payments, back to jail he goes.
S/he can materialize as the stop-and-frisk police practice that “randomly” targets individuals and gets hauled into booking because s/he has yet to secure an ID.
Now, I’m not submitting anything scientifically pressure-tested through case studies, controlled groups and published in any American psychiatric journals, but when you’ve lived an experience you can become the experience you’ve lived.
There is very real trauma associated with being in a facility for years on end, around anti-social individuals who have been accused of participating in every crime on the spectrum, disengaged from family or intimacy, (in many cases) dehumanized by correctional officers, and expected to be acclimated to pro-social behaviors no sooner than you have finished your first box of french fries from McDonald’s! The innocence of riding in the middle of a back seat, between two passengers, on your way a fun-filled event, can trigger the thought of being shackled and squished between other prisoners on your way to court. The simplicity of headlights flashing in your window by a passing car in the middle of the night can be reminiscent of a startling 3 AM head count by correctional staff using their flashlights.
Prison traumatic stress disorder is very palpable to the approximate 2 million individuals in our nation’s correctional facilities. Mother’s are expected to be maternal in the nurturing their children post-incarceration. Father’s who expect to be respected by their families. Daugther’s who we anticipate will be quaint and dainty. Uncles, aunts, cousins, neighbors, friends, nephews, nieces, friends, brothers, sisters, grandparents, husbands, wives, and sons who are all expected to walk out of an extended episode of The Twilight Zone and onto a societal set of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood without compunction, complaint, or combativeness. They are, in more cases than few, very fearful of the world that has changed and evolved without them as their lives were on pause.
I’ve yet to speak with any returning citizen who hasn’t, at least occasionally, recall pretentious and power-struck prison guards, prison yard stabbings, (sexual) assaults, violent outbursts, and/or other forms of bruising to their memories they would pay to have healed.
These returning citizens need to be met with the clinical care, societal empathy, and family support that they need in order to redeposit back into the areas of life where they may have previously bankrupted. One. Day. At. A. Time. How come? Because the criminal justice system that we fund billions of our tax dollars through to “rehabilitate” them has created more of a traumatic mess than what we anticipated or even realize is exists.
While I may not be a psychiatrist in real life and only play one on tv, allow me to prescribe a medicinal antibiotic of the sort for this lock-em-up-and-throw-away-the-key infection: the old-fashion, unsophisticated, unresearchable, confounding power of love and prayer has never failed in the life of a solitary person in the history of this world.
If we expect our returning citizens to function and be meaningful contributors in this world, we have just as much of the responsibility they had to serve their debt, to meet them with understanding, provide second chance opportunities, and exercise patience in their habitation back on this side of life crime-free.
The greatest humanitarian to live on this side of heaven once said:
“I was in prison and you came to me...so much as you do to the least of these among men, you do also to me” - Matthew 25:31
Let’s do our part to assist those who have been “in prison” with the skill sets that we have in job readiness, sober supports, mental health decompression, etc. to help them turn their nightmares of failure into dreams of success accomplished and filled.