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Second Chances

No money, no food, no home: the first three days of freedom are key to whether you go back to prison or stay out

The first 72 hours determine what the new life will be like. Where to sleep, who to call, how to pay for transportation, who to ask for a favor are some of the challenges faced by people leaving prison. They become such difficult moments that during the first two weeks, there is a very high chance of dying, as much as 13 times higher than that of someone else who hasn’t been in prison. These four testimonials show how complicated this Second Chance(*) can be.

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23 Jun 2020 – 07:33 PM EDT
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These four people talk about what the first 72 hours after leaving prison were like. Crédito: Layout David Maris

Zachary Manuz had several hernias removed three days before leaving prison. He could barely walk. “I was very vulnerable medically. I felt very bad, really bad.

"I got out at about 7:30 a.m. They just gave me blue jeans, some like slip-on shoes and a baby blue t-shirt. I only received $15. That is what I had coming, because I had been in prison more than once.

"If I hadn’t had family within that 72 hours, I don’t know how I would have done. I would have probably resorted to old ways of surviving, which are the wrong ways.”

A study from the Urban Institute Justice Policy Center found that once released, only 39% of people are picked up by a friend or family member. The rest leave prison alone, by bus or on foot.

Manuz is the son of Spaniards, but he only speaks English. He has been in prison three times, in Arizona. He went in at 18, and when he was interviewed, in October of 2019, he was 28. As happens to 11% of the prison population that needs treatment for substance abuse, he did not receive any treatment while serving his sentences. The second time, he was released directly from a solitary confinement cell, with no transition. He was arrested six months later.

The first 72 hours are crucial to successful reintegration. Every hour that goes by means making tough decisions and seeking solutions to life issues: finding something to eat, how to get around, where to sleep, understanding new technology, following the rules for parole or overcoming addiction or mental health problems.

One month after his third release, Manuz speaks haltingly about what his first three days of freedom were like.

“Within the first 24 hours, you have to go see your probation officer. My girlfriend picked me up at the prison and I went straight there. Then I went to get food stamps. They approved me for about $190 in food stamps.

"They assigned me a case manager and then set up the dates for my classes, which were later that week. They are classes in sewing, mental health, and, mainly, about substance abuse.

"If I didn’t have family, I’m sure that the third day would have been rough, too. Every single day would have been a lot worse.

"I was in prison for a long time. I feel that people are judging me right away. I feel very antisocial. I have a lot of anxiety. I don’t like to be in public places. I feel institutionalized. It’s very hard to function in society after spending most of your adult life in prison.

"The previous times, I went back because I had issues that were never addressed. I had drug and mental health problems that were never addressed. I never got rehabilitation. The only time that I had classes that were powerful and transforming was during my last sentence. They were classes from Arizona State University with professor Kevin Wright. Those were the only classes that ever challenged my old ways of thinking with a newer, better way. And they showed me that I was smart enough to compete in a college level class and get good grades. I never thought I could change my way of thinking. They showed me there that my opinion matters and my experience matters."

A $10 check that you can’t cash

Kelly E. Orians, co-director of The First 72+, an organization in New Orleans, explains why the first 72 hours are crucial to the experience of reintegration into society. “ In Louisiana people are released from prison with a $10 check, a bus ticket, and the clothes on their back. In order to cash that check they need an $18 state identification card. You can actually be held in jail in Louisiana for not having proper identification so you are leaving prison already vulnerable for rearrest.

On a basic human level, within those first 3 days you are going to need to get something to eat, use the bathroom, get some clothes, find a place to sleep - and remember, all you have is a $10 check, that you can’t cash. Desperate people do desperate things, and when we release people from prison with no money, no place to sleep, and no place to work, we can’t be surprised when they resort to illegal activity to make a way.”

A study published in The New England Journal of Medicine that analyzed the risk of death of people released from state prisons in Washington between July of 1999 and December of 2003 found that the probability of dying is 13 times greater during the first two weeks than for other people with the same characteristics in the same state.

The most common causes of death were overdose, cardiovascular disease, homicide and suicide. The study suggests that the abstinence period during confinement may lead to reduced physiological tolerance for drugs, increasing the risk of overdose.

The challenges of finding stable housing involve having enough money for a deposit, as well as finding properties that accept tenants with criminal records and minimal credit histories. Maintaining family ties from prison is hard. The lack of housing, the lack of family and financial support are a recipe for indigence. Statistics confirm that fact: according to the Prison Policy Initiative, former prisoners are 10 times more likely to wind up homeless. In New York and Philadelphia, between 4 and 11 percent of people released spend time in homeless shelters at some point during the two years following their release from prison.

Orians says that at The First 72+, they provide free transitional housing. They also offer help overcoming barriers that keep people from getting steady jobs or building a credit history. She said they have helped more than 800 people since 2014 and have housed 76 in their transitional housing.

Jim Vogelzang, founder of the organization Doing His Time, which offers an aid program in Colorado for the first 72 hours ( 72-Hour Fund), said that “a lot of times people are released from prison in the middle of winter in their summer clothes with no money, and parked on a bus stop. They have to eat, they have to sleep. If they are desperate, they're most likely to go back to their old habits, whether it's robbery burglary selling drugs, whatever it is.”

His organization provides personal-care items, clothes, bus tickets and help obtaining a state ID. They say that of the almost 10,000 people they helped between 2013 and 2017, less than 12% have reoffended, a percentage far below the state’s current 50% recidivism rate.

Based on the Christian faith, they do not judge anyone, Vogelzang said. “Anybody who walks in the door gets help, no matter their nationality, gender or sexual orientation. We accept them. We give them full items so that they can feel human. They can come back again once a month for six months. They can build up a wardrobe to have hope. I think they feel a bit of love.”

Another California program, The Ride Home Program – created as part of an alliance between the Three Strikes Project and the Anti-Recidivism Coalition – transports newly released people to rehab homes.

Nonprofits throughout the country offer reinsertion assistance to former prisoners. United Way 211 has information about front-line services in every state, with translation available to more than 300 languages.

What do formerly incarcerated people experience during those first 72 hours? What difficulties do they encounter? Three more people share how they felt upon being released after being locked up for eight months or 23 years.

“It was the first time I had seen them in 23 and a half years”

Patricia Vildosola has Spanish and Mexican roots. She spent 23 and a half years in prison. She got out in June of 2019. She lives in Los Angeles, California in a transitional home, where she is taking classes in different programs. She works part time at Goodwill’s second-hand clothing stores.

“They released me on June 4. I got to the parking lot where my mom, my niece and my brother-in-law were picking me up. It was really overwhelming. It was the first time that I had seen them in 23 and a half years. When I was in prison, I had some contact with my family, but I never had physical contact with them. They never really came to see me. So everything that I was with my family was basically over the phone.

"Even though I knew them, it was heartbreaking for me. I tried not to cry, but yet I found myself crying. It was an emotional moment to really embrace my freedom.

"My mother gave me a cell phone and I looked at it. I didn’t even know where to turn it on at. Every time I looked at my mother, tears would start falling from my eyes, just from seeing how many years had gone by. She wasn’t the same mother that I left behind. It was at that moment that I realized I had been gone for all those years. It was heartbreaking for me.

"My mom made dinner. I told her I wanted to eat homemade macaroni and cheese.

"There were times when I felt like I had never left home, that I was living my normal life. The only difference was that everybody was older. Waking up in the morning and being able to take a shower in a normal shower and not hear the guards or the other prisoners.

"My brother-in-law took me shopping. I think he went to a Walmart. So we went in there and I was kind of lost. The variety was just like a lot, all these nail polishes, eyelashes., but I still didn't even know what I needed or what I wanted.

"Then I moved to a reentry home called A New Way of Life. I had to stay with the house staff for 30 days. They took me to get my birth certificate and ID. They helped me go get the medical and taught me to use the phone.

"It’s hard to find a good job. I earn less than minimum wage. Now I’m working for Goodwill. I’m still in training. I have only been working part time. I’m also taking some classes four days a week.

"When I went to prison, my children were adopted out. Because of all the years of separation, we're barely trying to rebuild the relationship. It's been like a very, very slow pace with them.

"It took me 23 and a half years to find myself. I reached a point in my life where I was at peace with myself. Before, there was no way I could be good to myself, because I couldn’t be good to myself if I didn’t even love myself. Now I find that my goals are set in my life, and I tell myself, you know, they weren’t all l wasted years. I went to school. I went to drug and alcohol counseling and got a two-year degree, an AA degree. I did some paralegal classes. Now I say that it doesn’t matter what challenge comes up, because there will be lots of challenges, and they will be good."

“You feel alone and lost”

Arlica Hernández is 37. Her mother is from Monterrey, and her father is from Chihuahua, in Mexico. She has been in prison twice. The first time, for four years, in 2001. The second time, in 2018, for eight months. The day we spoke to her, she was celebrating the one-year anniversary of her release. She lives in Peoria, Arizona, where she has her own business, a successful hair salon in which, she told us, she serves between 1,500 and 3,000 people each month, including people leaving prison and correction officers. She talks about what the first 72 hours were like after she left prison the second time, on October 31, 2018.

“When you get out, you feel weird. You feel different, you feel lost. Even if you have your mom there, even if you have your family there, or if you have someone thinking you up, you still feel alone and lost. You’re in this big world that you have to figure out. It’s scary. The number one thing that you should feel is no matter or what you've done, no matter who you've hurt, no matter who you've lied to, the moment that you step out of those gates, you have paid in full. You've been punished. You've paid for your, what you did wrong.

“You have anxiety. It's a really tough feeling. You’re not the same person. Prison is one of the worst places you'll ever visit in your life. You don't wish that anyone would visit prison. It’s inhumane, embarrassing. So when you walk out that gate, you have a sense of freedom, and a sense of, ‘Okay, it’s now time for me to make up for everything I’ve lost.’ You lose a lot of stuff going to prison. When you get out, you just feel overwhelmed. It’s like, ‘Wow, I have a fresh start!’ But that fresh start can be a lot to take on, especially if you don't know how to take it on. I think that's why so many prisoners go back because they're overwhelmed.

"Life is really big. You just have to have people that believe in you to keep your mentality fresh, clear and clean.”

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“The first time I got out, my mom brought me some clothes, kind of like a jogging suit, like some spandex with a little zip up jacket, something stretchy, so it would fit. When you get out of prison, you don’t really know what size you are. The first place I wanted to go to was to my mom’s house, and I needed something out of the fridge.

“I showered. That was the first thing. I wanted to wipe off all the prisons, smell, everything. I wanted to wipe it all down and, and let it go down the drain. I didn't want to go anywhere. I just wanted to be in the room. I didn't want to do anything as long as I could be in the room by myself.

“I think prison for me was a time to sit down and reflect on where I wanted to be, what message I want to send in my life. I think prison is like a hospital for God. He’s sitting you down and saying, ‘Look, you have multiple opportunities. Look, hold on, you need to slow down. You need to think about what you're doing. You need to take this time to reflect.’ I feel like prison is God’s hospital for those who want to get well. And for those that don’t want to, well, they keep going back. You have to want to heal yourself, to move forward.”

“It just felt really good being in a real bed”

The son of Mexicans, Manuel Ruiz spent 21 years in prison. He got out seven years ago. He is now 46 and lives in Los Angeles. He spent a year and a half in transition programs and still participates in InsideCircle, where he is chairman of the board. He has a steady job, he got married a year ago and is the stepfather of five children. He remembers his first 72 hours clearly.

“When I left the prison, I didn't bring anything with me. Whatever I had of clothing, shoes or value, I left it to the guys behind there. The prison gave me some donations. I was wearing a white t-shirt and short pants that didn’t fit me. I looked like a bum, but I didn’t care because my mom came to pick me up with my nephew. As soon as I walked out the gate, they had clothes for me.

“It was around 10 o'clock in the morning. It was a weekday. They'd take me in a bus to the gate. We were just super happy. We stopped to eat something at Denny’s, and at a mall to grab some shoes.

“We had a nice dinner. I remember I just said that a home cooked meal is what I want. And we talked about our history. My aunt, my uncle, my parents and my siblings were all there. When I went to bed, I got to sleep with my brother’s dog. It just felt really good being in a real bed.

"The next day, I had to go to the parole office, to check in there and find out who my parole officer was and what my conditions were, who I can hang out with, what I can do. Then I went to a sober living home calle Walden House HealthRight 360. I entered the program, where I spent the next six months. I think the next day I went to get my ID.

"If I didn't have my family then I knew it would've been a lot harder to get my ID. They really helped me out with those first steps. Getting your paperwork, your ID, is very crucial. It’s rejoining society as a person. It’s getting back into society as a person."

This work is part of the “Second Chance” project, thanks to the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.
Coordination: Tamoa Calzadilla and Olivia Liendo.
Research and production assistance: Ana María Carrano, Alexandra Barrera, Albany Urbaez Tahuil and Carolina Rosas.
Photography and photo layout: David Maris.
General production: Emilce Elgarresta and Stephen P. Keppel.
Social media: María Carolina Hurtado, María Dayana Patiño and Liliana Castaño.