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Former inmates give advice to those just getting out of prison

user Kate Ter Haar

Yesterday we heard from an ex-con about what it was like for him to transition from life behind bars to life on the outside. He says having a mentor helped a lot – someone to whom he felt a true sense of responsibility – and he didn't want to screw it up by doing something bad and winding up back in prison. 

I asked a handful of other former inmates to share their advice for those who are about to or are in the midst of transitioning back into society. Here are their answers:

What advice would you give to inmates who are about to re-enter society?

It's important to write plans and goals down, to be organized, complete a resume, get addresses and phone numbers of places you need to go to get your license, healthcare, etc. It's easy to become overwhelmed with these simple tasks. Always keep a positive attitude!  – Robert Richmond

Stay focused and determined. There are going to be a number of battles and deterrents throughout this new phase of life. Things will not be easy by any means. However use the bad days as motivation. Remember where you have been and how far you have come, and mostly stay focused on where you are headed. You’ve already made it through the darkest part, keep heading toward the light at the end of the tunnel. – April Palmer

The No. 1 ingredient required to make it is humility. When humble, I am teachable. When full of myself, I am full of shit. One cannot graft new ideas on a closed mind. – Tim Hurley

Be respectful to your parole officer and to those that are helping you to get through a difficult time. Apply for educational grants and better yourself through continued education. Be careful with whom you associate. Stay away from friends that use drugs or alcohol. – Jerry Spears 

Hopefully, you learned a trade while incarcerated. If not, upon release stay away from those people you associated with prior to coming to prison. Work and don't stop looking for work. Google "Jobs for people with felonies" and there you'll find a very long list of companies, many major companies, who hire ex-felons. – Lionel Stewart

I received two sage pieces of advice from another very wise, long-termer: that the world I left no longer exists, so don't try to pick up where life was so rudely interrupted [and] that I'll have a huge hole in my life where the kids and career should be.  The first advice was, wear age-appropriate clothes. Second advice, date age-appropriate women.  – Charles Spratling

No amount of planning can fully prepare you for your return to society. Be flexible and open minded to change. Things will most likely not be as you envisioned them to be. Remain positive and focused ... If you are not ready to give up all your criminal behavior and ways of thinking you might as well stay in prison because everything you say or do WILL be verified and checked out by your parole officer. You MUST make a cognitive decision that you will now be on the up-and-up. – Nicole Deschermeier 

Reach out to family if you have them. They are so important to your ultimate success. If you are not fortunate enough to have family support, approach a church or social organization for immediate assistance. Don't allow pride to stand in your way. Try, if possible, through your chaplaincy department while still in prison to find a group or organization that will be there for you from the moment you step out into free society. – Steven Lucas

What should inmates expect to face when they are released?

You should expect change in the free world. Things are not the same as before you went in, especially with technology. You should also expect to be turned down at job interviews because of your felony. I filled out over a hundred applications when I got of prison and went on quite a few interviews. As soon as my felony came up, which was a violent felony (2nd degree murder) and that I did 22 years in prison, the interview went south. You may get judged by some people, but again, stay positive and don't give up! I got lucky and actually found a business that does give second chances to felons and I wish there were more business[es] that would follow Urban Ashes* business model. – Robert Richmond

Upon release, people should expect to face change and adversity. Coming out, no matter how long a person was gone, is going to be difficult. In the eyes of many, you are nothing more than a criminal. Society will be quick to take the ex-felon label and run with it. It’s up to us as ex-felons to show society that we are just as capable and worthy of being productive members of society as anyone. It's up to us to change the stigma that comes with be[ing] labeled an ex-felon. – April Palmer

There are a lot of obstacles with employment, housing, and transportation. Family, friends, and loved ones can be some of your biggest downfalls. Once the initial excitement about your release is over, everyone will be going back to their [re]spective lives!  – Calvin Evans**

All I can say is, be doggedly persistent as you dig your life out of the hole, as it were. It's so frustratingly depressive when you try so very hard and see so little progress. You need faith and confidence. Despite smiling to your face, people will be wary and suspicious of you, but about half believe in second chances. Avoid the other half.  – Charles Spratling

You should expect to face a parole officer who has no faith in you and makes it very clear that he'd just as soon send you back than supervise you. Expect to have to earn people's belief in you, but once you do it will be well worth your perseverance. You should expect to feel "different" than everyone around you. I felt like everyone somehow knew I was fresh out of prison. – Nicole Deschermeier

It will be difficult to find work and a place to live. Society assumes because you were once a criminal, you will always be a criminal, and they don't want that association among the ones they hire, or in the vicinities where they live. Some are going to be cruel, but you will find so many others who will try to be understanding and compassionate. Live your life not to disappoint those who are cheering you on and helping you. These compassionate ones will be your best source for support and stability. – Brian Wagner

What worked best for you in terms of finding your footing outside of prison?

Staying vigilant, not giving up, and staying positive. You’re going to get rejected and some things are not going to pan out the way you envisioned, but having a great  “can-do”  attitude will take you a long way. Take what you can get until you find the job you want. Everything helps!

Also, don't be scared to ask for help. One of the best things for me that helped find my footing was the support from family and friends! They are a valuable resource to help you along your way. From information about simple everyday tasks that you no longer know how to do, to links to jobs, to getting positive feedback on how you are doing. – Robert Richmond

The best thing I did for myself coming out was [to] use the resources given to me by the Department of Corrections. I know that no one coming out wants to continue to be hand-in-hand with MDOC, however the resources that they provide are beneficial. Since my re-entry almost four years ago I have secured and maintained employment, and obtained a place of my own all with the help of the programs I was put into upon my release. – April Johnson

Moving out of the environment which I came from, and networking. – Calvin Evans

Be honest, friendly, careful, helpful, and have clean habits. The same things that worked in prison. Pursue the positive, which doesn't mean wish your woes away. Should you try to hit the ground running, you will almost certainly fall on your face. – Charles Spratling

I surrounded myself with a church community. As in, I literally lived with a woman from my church. Doing so helped me feel less alone and held me accountable while creating stability. Focusing on one step at a time helped me a great deal. – Nicole Deschermeier

I was fortunate enough to have full family support and friends who were there from the moment I stepped out of prison. My wife and children had already anticipated my needs and covered me with love and understanding. Also, I was introduced to an active church group [that] works with ex-offenders and helps them with their immediate and future needs. – Steven Lucas

What do you wish you would have known or been told before your release?

I wish I would’ve known how much the world had changed. When someone gets incarcerated, time stops.  Life for someone in prison doesn’t change day to day. We are stuck doing the same thing every day for the allotted time given to us. But the world outside the prison walls changes daily. Change is scary, but change is a beautiful thing. Embrace it as soon as you can. – April Palmer

I wish would have been told that things are not as easy as I thought. As a prisoner, it is easy to just say “when I get out I’m going to get a job, buy a home, start a family," but the reality of it is, it takes hard work to obtain these things. They don't just suddenly happen as you think; so I wish I would have been told that. – Robert Richmond

Because I was gone for so long, I felt like I had to do things for family and friends that actually added stress on me. I felt like I had to hurry up and do this thing, or that I had to hurry up and do that thing so that       they would be proud of me and want to continue to support and help me. Those people who believe in you are going to be there. You just have to trust yourself enough to be able to discern who those individuals are. – Calvin Evans

I wish I had known, and gotten a head start on, the proper identity papers. Particularly the birth certificate and Social Security [card]. Prison authorities are of no help in this, and their focus on security makes them an actual hindrance. Many of the volunteer organizations are a different story. Be sure to express sincere gratitude, which means not just with words, and pay forward any help you receive. – Charles Spratling

When you are released, the prison system is through with you as far as help goes. The small amount of cash given to you will not sustain you for more than a couple of days. You much seek help immediately. If you are placed on parole, you cannot depend on this agency either. Basically, you are on your own to seek assistance. Seek out family first then a church for help. Catholics are particularly good at this. Good luck. – Steven Lucas

*We recently featured Urban Ashes in our documentary, Connections: The Power of Networks. You can listen to it here

**Calvin Evans shared his transition back into society for our Connections: The Power of Networks documentary. You can listen to it here.

Note: Some of the responses have been edited for style.

Jennifer is a reporter with Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project. She previously covered arts and culture for the station, and worked as a producer for WFUV in the Bronx.
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