Criminal justice reform is getting a lot of attention these days—and deservedly, much of this attention is focused on reentry. To those who are truly interested in attending to the needs and concerns of “returning citizens,” please keep in mind that adjusting to life outside of prison requires more than housing, employment, and the usual services associated with reintegration. After a lifetime spent in prison, the embrace of “freedom” seen on the surface also comes with a latent sense of bittersweetness: while some go free, others will remain behind and unfortunately die in prison. This is a heavy weight that some returning citizens will carry with them for the rest of their lives.
On November 20th, 2017, Luis Suave David Gonzalez will be returning to a world much different than the one he left behind 32 years ago. Back then Run DMC was blowing up the airwaves and everyone had their shelltop Adidas with the Broadway laces; President Reagan was in charge and the USSR was still a thing. While being away, Luis missed all the changes that occurred: the gentrification of his old North Philly neighborhood, the births of so many nieces and nephews, and the passing of his mother.
Giovanni M. Reid was 17 years old in 1991 when he was accused, and later convicted, of a robbery/homicide he had nothing to do with. He had never had so much as a speeding ticket in his life before finding himself enduring a hopeless nightmare. On November 20th, Giovanni will be celebrating his first birthday as a free man in 26 years.
From the outside looking in one could easily say how thankful these two gentlemen should be for another chance at freedom; that’s that and that’s the end of it. Tell them to find a job, get a house, rebuild your life and put the past behind you. For some it’s not that simple. The past is made up of experience you’ve had, places you’ve been, and people you’ve known. When your experiences largely consist of headcounts and strip searches; the places you’ve been have all been crammed into a 6×12 concrete and steel box; when the people you’ve known have all been felons, demolished and discarded from the inside out, it’s pretty hard to forget that. Sure, returning citizens can discount their experience as being part of a cultural trauma, and they can even put the tiny cells behind them. But they never forget the people they meet along the way. They never forget the promises—kept and broken; they never forget the dreams and hopes for a different future. If you listen closely you can hear them tell the stories of a cellmate or walkie they knew a lifetime ago. It’s a mix of guilt and appreciation.
When they talk about reentry what’s really being said is “forget.” When people who’ve never been through the proving ground of prison (where you learn what kind of person you really are), or those whose self-centered values have always been apparent, suggest only the most superficial of quick fixes—either because they don’t know any better or they don’t care—what they fail to consider is that there are real people behind the numbers. And each person carries the baggage of a lifetime of people they’ve met and loved as their own blood. Good luck, Suave. Happy Birthday, G. To all the men and women struggling to make it and keep their word to us at the same time, we’re good. Your success IS our success and we couldn’t be happier for you all. We truly do wish you P-E-A-C-E.
by eduardo ramirez
P.o. box 244 graterford, pa 19426-0246