They call it “re-entry” these days. It sounds a little cold and clinical at first, but when you think about it, it’s actually a pretty good term. It reminds us that returning to the outside after time in prison is like a spacecraft coming back to earth. You may have heard that the re-entry phase is the most dangerous part of the whole process of space flight. Lots of things can go wrong for a spacecraft coming back into the atmosphere. It can come in too fast and burn up. It can miscalculate and crash land. What’s needed is a carefully thought-out plan – a safe glide path back home for a safe landing.
It’s no different for an inmate re-entering the outside world. After being locked up for a while, we’re no longer used to the outside atmosphere. We can foolishly take things too quickly or too impulsively, and simply crash and burn. What we need is a carefully thought-out (and prayed-over) plan to create a safe glide path for ourselves in our first six months after release.
That’s what we need, but that’s not what we always do. Nearly all of us go through our own case of “short-timer’s disease:” unrealistic expectations, a lack of careful planning and communication, the awkward experience to adapting to life on the outside, and the sobering realization that life is wonderful, but hard.
One of them isn’t enough. That’s because neither one on its own is going to help us thrive (spiritually, or otherwise) after prison. Hope without realistic expectations quickly turns into wishful thinking, followed by bitter disappointment. And even realistic expectations, without deep and profound hope, can quickly turn into pessimism and perhaps a trip back to prison. We’ve come to believe that what we need is hope—God’s own hope. True hope is God’s gift to us. It’s based on God’s promises to us for a better tomorrow. It’s a vision of a brighter future planted by God himself deep in our imaginations. True hope comes from God and is based on his own unshakable promises. It isn’t just our own wishful thinking. Those of us who are unsure of what to believe about God can take inspiration from recent research into the importance of mindsets. It turns out that some of us are locked into a closed mindset, and feel that no mount of effort will change us. But some of us have a growth mindset, and have seen that effort and dedication actually do grow all kinds of new capacities inside us.
These ideas sound good, of course, but are they realistic? Do they overlook the challenges and difficulties of surviving, even thriving, after prison? We all know that it’s one thing to feel positive and excited when the institutional umbrella keeps temptation and fresh disappointment on the other side of the prison wall. It’s another thing when you’re outside and the storms come. It’s hard to stand tall when the lure of the streets, the pull of old habits you hoped were gone, the unresolved problems with your family, and the disappointments, struggles, injustices and frustrations of daily life hit you in the face day after day. Rainy and stormy days lie ahead, and it’s best to do some preparation and planning, now, while you’re still inside, or at least in the early days of your release.
It may be easier to take your body out of the prison than to take the prison out of your mind. You’ll find that, whether you wanted to or not, you grooved in that prisoner mentality over the years. That means, in your early days out of prison, you’ll feel out-of- step with almost everyone—except, perhaps, other ex-convicts (and you may need to stay away from them for legal reasons or for your own good). You’ll experience reverse culture shock. You’ll probably feel overwhelmed. You may want to go into a shell or go out and medicate yourself. Resist this – feeling disoriented is normal, and it passes. There’s very little you’ll be able to do to hurry up the process. It’s like going outside into bright sunlight after having been in a dark room. Only, it’s not your eyes that have to adjust, but your thoughts, emotions, and habits. The more you realize that this is part of a natural process of readjustment to being outside, the more you can keep from freaking out and losing it in the early weeks. Many of us find that we really need to rely on God during this time. Finding reassurance, confidence, and courage to keep things together in prayer will be a major priority. The only problem with that is, just when you really need it, the whole spiritual routine that you’ve been developing for years behind bars will have been interrupted.
Unfortunately, prison does a fantastic job at shielding us from the practice of decision making. Choices as simple as what and when to eat are taken out of our hands. Many of us forget about the sheer number of everyday decisions people make, especially when we re-enter society.
If it were only a question of deciding minor things like what to eat, we wouldn’t even bother mentioning it. But big-decision overload is a whole different thing. Deciding whether it’s better to live with family or in a half-way house, what kind of jobs to apply for, what old friends to re-connect with or disconnect from, who to trust or not, how and when to resume parenting responsibilities, and dozens of other issues, simultaneously, can overwhelm even the best of us. We need to find a way to step up and get help at the same time.
Maybe the greatest decision we face is what to do with our new-found freedom. We no longer have people restricting our movement and monitoring where we go. We can walk down the same paths that brought us to prison in the first place. That road is clear, and we often have people encouraging us to join them on it. The spiritual questions are, “Am I free enough to say no to this temptation?” “When I step outside and see my old crew waving me over to go for a ride, does my relationship with God give me the inner strength to tell them that I’m done with that?” “Will God give me the courage to stand tall when they’re making fun of me and pressuring me, and telling me that I’ll be back out in the streets in a week?” “Will they believe that I’ve changed? Do I believe that I’ve changed? Really?” /p>
Everything we do reflects on our character, our values, our priorities, and our basic trust in God. Even looking for a job is a spiritual exercise, because we need integrity to tell the truth on our job applications. We need patience and perseverance to keep going when we’ve been rejected fifty times. We need hopefulness and trust to continue to look for legitimate work instead of stealing or selling drugs. We need humility to start a new job at the bottom of the ladder. We need trustworthiness and discipline to show up on time every day in order to hang on to it. And we need gratitude to thank God for the opportunity to work. It’s all spiritual.
We could say the same sort of things about getting along with our family, participating in a twelve-step program, taking care of our health, avoiding pornography, helping out at home, taking the initiative to reach out to help others even though we’re still in need ourselves, and a thousand other things. Everything is spiritual, because nothing exists outside of God’s influence or concern. Everything is spiritual, because everything is connected, because everything matters to God, and because we matter to God.
We’ve come to believe that hope is “a sure and steady anchor” for our souls, and because of that we “boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”
Hope is foundational. Without it, we’ll just be one of those people who keeps recycling through the criminal justice system. But hope alone is not enough. It needs to be paired with thoughtful, careful planning. It’s no secret that lots of inmates get so fixated on their release day that they don’t think long and hard about what they will do when they get home. They don’t communicate up front with their family to set up the expectations for when they get back. Figuring everything out on the spot only adds to the mess and confusion. Most inmates are notoriously poor planners, but what will really benefit you is the boring, painstaking, important work of making practical plans – and communicating them with your family.
● Re-entry planning is a lot more than just figuring out where you’re going to live and getting a few job leads. Whether you leave prison on discretionary parole, mandatory parole, or without parole, a release plan is essential. The same is true for people transitioning out of a halfway house.
A written release plan is key to success. It can just be for your own use, or you can give a copy to your case manager for the parole board to review. (Parole hearings are generally short so you probably won’t discuss the whole plan.) These four areas are probably the most important to the parole board:
These four planning areas line up fairly well with the way we’ve structured RED Chicago. We believe that successful reentry is a progressive 5-step process (see the box at the beginning of this section), with each step building on the previous step. Jump too far ahead and you’ll tend to get ahead of yourself and stumble badly. Skip too many steps, and your odds of staying clean, legal, and productive suffer badly. Work the process!
We’re not naïve. We know that leaving prison and reintegrating back into the workplace, your family, and the larger society is not easy. It can be very frustrating and overwhelming at times. The truth is that a lot of people aren’t successful and end up back in prison.
But we’re hopeful that things can, and will, change for the better. If we weren’t absolutely convinced of that, we wouldn’t even bother with this directory. We want to help be part of that change. We hope you do, too. We hope that RED Chicago increases your hope, lays out a helpful process for you to follow, and connects you with some wonderful people and resources to get you to the new life God has waiting for you. We hope this is a useful tool for you to prepare your own personal safe glide path back home, so that as you navigate back home, you have a safe landing.