One of my favorite movies is the incredible 1994 movie The Shawshank Redemption Starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman. Of course, I’m not alone, as this movie tops numerous “Greatest Movies” and “Favorite Movies” lists.
I bring this up because for me one of the most memorable scenes in the movie is when the older prisoner Brooks gets parole after serving 50 years, but he can’t adjust to the outside world and ends up hanging himself suicide.
It’s a really touching scene, and it wasn’t part of the source material, Stephen King’s short story rita hayworth & The Shawshank Redemption. But it accurately describes how difficult life can be when someone who has been imprisoned for decades is suddenly released into the free world. Everything you know can change instantly, and it can scare you.
think about it. Can you imagine your reaction if you went to bed in 1994 and woke up in 2019? I was only locked up for four years after my case was in court for two years before that. By the time the dust had settled and six years had passed, I felt like I had lost every single one of those years because I couldn’t live like a normal citizen.
During that time, technology changed so quickly that I fell behind and my friends and family had major life events that I missed. My nieces and nephews went from 1st and 2nd grade kids to middle schoolers.
There’s a brand new president, new stores in my hometown and old ones that close. I have no money because I went bankrupt when I went to court, and then I have no income in prison.
I had no car, no place to live, and no possessions other than the suitcase I brought with me when I got out. To make matters worse, the Cubs actually won the World Series! Plus, the crime I was convicted of at the time is now legal in more than half the country. It really is a whole new world.
So, all of this brings me to today’s topic: How do prisoners react to getting out after decades in prison?
In this blog post, I will cover the following topics:
- How are prisoners responding to new technology?
- After Decades in Prison, Are Long-Term Prisoners “Institutionalized”?
- How do long-term residents adapt to their new surroundings?
How are prisoners responding to new technologies?
In the prison where I was detained, there was a prisoner who worked in the cafeteria. She had been locked up since 1994, served 25 years in prison, and was released on parole in 2017.
When she goes in, the phone is a giant contraption that hangs in your car, or a big brick that looks like a Zach Morris or Gordon Gecko would carry it. Before the internet, everyone watched movies on VCRs on VHS tapes they rented from their local Blockbuster.
The TV is the big tube, the radio is something you can only listen to on the FM or AM dial, and The Simpsons Only in their third season. There is no such thing as podcasts, YouTube, Instagram, Google, or Amazon.
In 23 years, the long-timer’s only exposure to new technology has been through television, but that’s the only thing she’s ever seen and never used. I remember her telling me that she was excited to get a cell phone and use the internet, but she was terrified.
For more than 20 years, the only life she has known is a life completely controlled and regulated by prison guards. It’s hard enough that I endured four years, I can’t imagine 23 years.
Otis J. — an inmate who served 40 years in prison — had this to say about his release in 2015 after spending decades in prison:
“I saw all these people on the street talking to themselves and I thought I was running away. Finally someone told me they were talking into a headset and it was a phone. So then I started thinking there were agents everywhere because last time I was in society, and only those people had that kind of equipment. I stood on a street corner for two hours, semi-hypnotic, just frozen.”
After Decades in Prison, Are Long-Term Prisoners “Institutionalized”?
Most long-term inmates will tell you that they are “institutionalized,” which means they’ve become so used to living in an environment so structured that the very thought of freedom is frightening.
When they do get released, things usually don’t go well for them, as they’re used to having meals prepared (and sometimes delivered) every day. They also have regular laundry for uniforms and bedding, and don’t have to pay rent or bills or worry about sticking to a budget because you have no income or expenses.
Everything in prison is timed – when you go to sleep, when you wake up, when you use your phone, when you watch TV – and all other forms of entertainment (books, magazines, entertainment) are controlled by the prison.
So when you step into the free world, it feels like a mess. There are so many colours, sounds and people. Crowds can make you uncomfortable while having options can freeze you.
On the day I was released after four years in prison, I stood in front of Walmart’s toothbrush and toothpaste selection for about ten minutes because I was overwhelmed.
How do long-term residents adapt to their new surroundings?
If a long-term resident doesn’t have a good support system of friends or family — or someone at a halfway house or parole office willing to help — adjusting to the free world can be very difficult. You can have someone tell you what things are like out there, but unless you experience them yourself, it’s nearly impossible to really understand.
Adjustment takes time, not just material and technology. Prison can be brutal on you mentally, and therapy is strongly encouraged for every ex-prisoner. Whether they get help is a whole different story.
Should there be special transition programs for long-term immigrants to help them adapt to the free world? Let us know in the comments below.