The United States has 25% of the world’s prison population, some 2.3 million people, most of whom are poor, although it represents less than 5% of the global population. Its prisons are notorious for their violence, overcrowding, and human rights abuses, including the widespread use of solitary confinement. But what is often not examined is what happens to those released from prisons into a society where they face legalized discrimination imposed by numerous laws, rules, and policies that result in permanent marginalization, thrust into a criminal caste system. These former prisoners are often denied the right to vote, can lose their passports, are barred from receiving public assistance, including housing, and are blocked from a variety of jobs. They must often repay exorbitant fines, abide by arbitrary rules imposed by probation officers, and avoid committing even minor criminal offenses or they go back to prison. The hurdles placed before them are momentous and help explain why within five years a staggering 76% return to prison.
In the first of a two-part series called The Long Road Home, we look at what happens to those in the United States who leave prison and struggle to reenter society through the eyes of five former prisoners—all of whom Chris Hedges taught in the college degree program offered by Rutgers University in the New Jersey prison system—who collectively spent 119 years in prison.
Chris Hedges interviews writers, intellectuals, and dissidents, many banished from the mainstream, in his half-hour show, The Chris Hedges Report. He gives voice to those, from Cornel West and Noam Chomsky to the leaders of groups such as Extinction Rebellion, who are on the front lines of the struggle against militarism, corporate capitalism, white supremacy, the looming ecocide, as well as the battle to wrest back our democracy from the clutches of the ruling global oligarchy.
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Chris Hedges: Welcome to The Chris Hedges Report. The United States has 25% of the world’s prison population, some 2.3 million people, most of whom are poor, although it represents less than 5 percent of the global population. Its prisons are notorious for their violence, overcrowding, and human rights abuses, including the widespread use of solitary confinement. But what is often not examined is what happens to those released from prisons into a society where they face legalized discrimination imposed by numerous laws, rules, and policies that result in permanent marginalization, thrust into a criminal caste system.
These former prisoners are often denied the right to vote, can lose their passports, are barred from receiving public assistance including housing, and blocked from a variety of jobs. They must often repay exorbitant fines, abide by arbitrary rules imposed by probation officers, and avoid committing even minor criminal offenses or they go back to prison. The hurdles placed before them are momentous and help explain why within five years a staggering 76% return to prison. Today, in the first for a two-part series called The Long Road Home, we look at what happens to those in the United States who leave prison and struggle to reenter society through the eyes of five former prisoners, all of whom I taught in the college degree program offered by Rutgers University in the New Jersey prison system, who collectively spent 119 years in prison.
Mae Owen: When they say 30 to life, you realize your child is being locked up for 30 years, for the rest of his life. So how do you deal with that? Our prayer was that at Christmas time he’ll be home, and each year we just believed by Christmas time, he’ll be home, even this past Christmas. And we were able to hold onto that, believing that one day he would be home for the next Christmas.
Chris Hedges: Russ Owen, an army veteran, after 32 years is released from East Jersey State Prison in Rahway, New Jersey. He is greeted by his father, mother, daughter, grandchildren, and friends. He walks from the prison to the QuickChek, a ritual for freed prisoners who can see the convenience store from their barred windows, and engages in the familiar right of stuffing his prison issued clothes in the trash, as well as buying a few items in the store. But release is only the beginning of a journey that will end with three quarters of all released prisoners back in prison. While this is a day of joy and celebration for Russ, two years after being released, following a 16-year sentence, Robert Luma, whose nickname is Kabir, is still struggling to find housing — He lived for a time in a homeless shelter — And steady employment.
Robert “Kabir” Luma: It’s difficult. Very, very, very difficult, and really there’s no organization to support ex-offenders. And that’s kind of like where we get put in the hole [inaudible]. If you don’t have your own social connections and things of that nature, then you’re going to be done for. And a lot of guys who do a lot of time, like myself and more, they don’t have those connections because they’ve been gone for so long.
Chris Hedges: So when you look back on the whole period since you were released, what have been the hardest moments that you’ve had to deal with?
Robert “Kabir” Luma: I would say right before the pandemic when I was in the shelter, those are the hardest moments. Because a lot of times I did not want to be there, and I had to maybe go spend a night out. I might be with my friend. And they want to go in, and I might try to convince them to stay out more because I don’t want to go back there.
Chris Hedges: Explain to people why it’s so hard to get an apartment?
Robert “Kabir” Luma: Because for one, they want to know about your background check, your credit score, your eviction history. So they basically want to — And I understand that they want to see what type of person they’re putting in their property. Now, a person like myself, I might have to explain, I’ve been in prison for 16 years, and most people will not have you as their tenant. So that is a barrier that is kind of hard and difficult to climb.
Chris Hedges: And Whole Foods, talk about that.
Robert “Kabir” Luma: Oh yeah. I was at Whole Foods. This was two days before they actually called it the pandemic. And I was working there from March to August. That whole period of time, the courts were shut down. So when they did the background check, the courts were closed. So there’s no way they could do a background check. Once the courts reopened and they did my background check, they got rid of me.
Chris Hedges: But it is not only the physical impediments that make re-entry difficult, but the emotional and psychological ones. Ron Pierce, a Marine Corps veteran, explains what it was like to return to society after three decades. In his case to Rutgers University, where he completed the college degree he had begun in prison, graduating Summa Cum Laude.
Ron Pierce: I was in a college class, and I was talking to somebody about the class, and we were walking. Now at the time I was in a halfway back program. So I had to stop into the NJ STEP office, or the Mountain View office. And so when we got to where I had to go, she was busy, still talking. And because of prison mind, you get to your wing, you turn and you go. I did that and she looked at me and I was like, well, I have to go in here. And I just went in, but it was really… I talked to people in the office, and I said I felt really bad, like I was being rude. And they were saying, yeah, you were being rude.
So I went and I apologized to her next class and I said, look, I’m sorry. I was being rude. I’m just trying to re-acclimate back into society. She said, oh, it’s not a problem. I said, yeah, it is and I was rude and I want to apologize. So she accepted my apology and she started talking to me again. But class has started, now you have to sit down in class in the prison society. So I just abruptly got up and went, right in the middle of her sentence, got up and went to sit down. Now, somebody in prison would’ve understood, hey, we all have to sit down. She didn’t. She looked at me and never spoke to me again. So you’re used to that punishment mentality, and you have to break that and re-acclimate you back to a society that’s more free, to a degree.
Chris Hedges: But isn’t it also any emotion that exposes vulnerability? Grief, depression, weeping, all of that stuff is not something that many people within a prison will share with the others. Is that correct?
Ron Pierce: Well, it’s not that they won’t. It’s just, you can’t. It’s not the space for it. You can’t show grief. You can’t show fear. You can’t show sensitivity. You can’t show any of those emotions. If you do, it could be perceived as weakness. And as I said earlier, the perception of being a dangerous person comes with that. So, no, you repress all your emotions. You don’t express your emotions. And if you don’t express your emotions, when you come out, you’re not equipped to understand your own emotions, let alone be able to express them.
Chris Hedges: Thomas Dollard, who spent 30 years in prison, said that six months after his release, he too struggles to cope.
Thomas Dollard: I dream that I’m still there. Like I dream that they’re calling mess out. I wake up like, mess out? I’m getting ready to literally get up to go start preparing for mess. Why, so many things. Dealing, even, my wife sometimes has to say to me, why do you not sleep? Because I’m used to sleeping light because people are moving around me, waiting for the police to come hit my bed to wake me up and say, you got to get up, or you got to wake up so I can see you move. I still deal with these things now.
Though sometimes people say that I want to be free, I want to be free. But after being caged up so long, sometimes you say to yourself, am I really free? I know I’m on parole. That’s not free. I’m still what I look at as being a slave because I can’t go anywhere I want. I have to ask permission. I feel like, I’m 51 years old, but I feel like I’m somebody’s child. My parole officer is at least 20 years younger than me. And when I’m going to him, I have to ask him, I have to text him and tell him I want to go here, or I can’t even spend the night anywhere. These things are like being in prison.
Chris Hedges: Those in prison carry the trauma they endured in prison with them when they leave. The emotional numbness they needed to cope on the inside. The ever present threat of violence. The military-like regime where they are ordered about, made to march in single lines, thrown into isolation for minor infractions, locked in cages the size of bathrooms, and forced to obey the whims of corrections officers. These experiences and the conditioning they engender are not easily discarded, as Boris Franklin, who was in prison for 11 years, explained.
Boris Franklin: Well, one thing I learned when I got in prison, I had never heard more “excuse me” and “pardon me.” Because immediately you have to let the individual know that I don’t have a problem with you. So being rude in a prison comes at a different cost, especially in the maximum security prison in this hyper masculine space.
Thomas Dollard: I’ve seen a guy stab a guy in the yard and he died. I watched it. Did I think that I would see this day? No. I got cut on my face by somebody who was mad at somebody that I was close with. Every day when you wake up and you are in a situation like that in your cage, then you don’t see no way out.
Boris Franklin: When people are rushing, the hustle and bustle with getting on the buses when we were going to Rutgers, they don’t say excuse me. So you don’t know if… So my knee-jerk response is to respond to that disrespect in the way which I might have responded in that prison space. I mean, you were there when I came home and I was so socially awkward. I sat next to Chris at my first family outing, and I couldn’t order off an IHOP menu because choices were overwhelming. I wasn’t used to choices. We had a limited amount of choices. So your senses just get overwhelmed with everything. I couldn’t nail down the timing for crossing the street. I never thought that would be a problem. I hadn’t crossed the street in so long, I couldn’t time the cars. I would be sitting there just waiting for no traffic to come out.
Thomas Dollard: We have stores everywhere. This has been… Whew. This was a culture shock for me, coming back to a world that I really had no idea. When you are on the inside, you think you know what the world is like out here. Trust me. You have absolutely no idea.
Boris Franklin: And then when I went places, I felt like even if I was in a place where nobody knew me, I felt like I was sitting in a room with a prison uniform on with DLC on the back of it, and everyone knew I had just gotten out of prison. But I didn’t know there would be this storm of emotions going on inside of me that people could not see, that this anxiety that people could not see, that I was always under this pressure, which makes you want to leave. And then you get to the point where to be outside at night, I always felt like I was running back home because I was out of place. I’m supposed to be locked down at this time. I’m usually locked in a cell. And I remember I used to just have to stay out later and go further. Just drive a little further, something as small as breaking a rule. Like throwing something out of a window. I was so afraid to do anything for a long period of time, that I had put myself in such a box.
Thomas Dollard: When you hear a knock on the door, you fear that’s the day that the police are coming to say, come on, we’re taking you back. And you know you’ve done nothing, but you’ve seen people go back for nothing.
Boris Franklin: And another thing I was afraid to express, I was afraid to express anger because of what it cost. The first time I expressed anger was against my brother, and my older brother said, there’s a lot of stuff buried in there. It came out in a very unhealthy way in which I had to go back to him and I had to apologize to him. But you learned to choke back your anger so much, because an officer could disrespect you and it costs you to say something back. It causes you to defend yourself. All of that comes at a cost. So you just become a shell of yourself and you shrink a little bit, and you have to figure out how can I assert myself in this world and not be afraid that I’m going to make a social mistake and it’s going to come at cost? And so I lived trapped in that box.
And another thing that I had, I couldn’t ride in an elevator. Because you know the cage coming out of the mess hall? I got trapped in the cage. And I didn’t know I had any trauma, but one day I was going to the cage and I felt my underarm sweating. And I was trying to figure out, why am I sweating? And the closer I got to the cage, my heart started beating. And I realized that that day we got locked in the cage had traumatized me. Having this trauma, we got trapped in the elevator in New York. You remember that?
Chris Hedges: Yeah, I was with you.
Boris Franklin: And inside I was freaking out. I mean, we got trapped in an elevator in New York, where the fire department has to show up. Inside I don’t know, if I didn’t worry about someone else, truthfully, I worried about you. It took my mind off of it. Because I was like, I don’t want Chris to freak out. I didn’t want anybody to freak out, because if anybody lost it, I was done for it. It was just going to be a snowball effect. Because my knee-jerk response, I just wanted to get on the ground and just ball up. I just wanted to get on the ground and ball up.
Thomas Dollard: Let me say that in this way, things change as far as the people around you. Some for guys who you’ve been with in prison for years, they don’t want you to go. And some of the other people that are jealous that you are seeing something that they’re not seeing. And I have a life sentence. And a lot of the guys that I’ve dealt with over the years have life sentences. So for one of us to go home is rare. We don’t expect to walk out those doors when they say life. They said 30 years to life for us. We don’t look at the 30 years, we look at the life aspect. And some of us decided that we were going to do things inside the prison that will harm them when they have to go to the parole board because they didn’t look at this day. Like when I first got sentenced, I couldn’t see 30 years in prison. Can I? I’m 21 years old. I haven’t even lived for 30 years. Once that 30 years was up, it became something different. Like, wow, I can actually see my way out. Sometimes you can’t see no way out and that hole is so small that you are trying to dig your way out of it, but you’re staying in your own way.
Boris Franklin: You have to depend on yourself or a few good comrades. But friendship, I can be friends with these guys, but they’re flighty too, because some of them get paroled. And each time a guy leaves, he’ll take a part of you, because this is the guy you did three years with of a very hard space. And he helped make you laugh. And he helped, talked about sports and whatever. We experienced our life together, and then he’s gone and I got no one. I got to find another guy to bond with. And it’s like, how many times can you do this? How many people are going to keep leaving me? And to the point.
Chris Hedges: Making promises.
Boris Franklin: Yeah. Yeah. Then they make the promises as to, I’ll write you when I get out, I’ll send you something. And then somebody will ask you, hey, have you heard from Ron? Like, nah, I ain’t heard from him. Well, you know how they do once they get out there. So all of those things, it’s not just the anger. It’s everything, to become a complete person again, it takes time.
Chris Hedges: Kabir also described a similar difficulty in adjusting.
Robert “Kabir” Luma: Well, for one you’re not socialized. And psychologically, like when I got out, I still was in prison mode. Like I was uptight, everybody that walked past me I had to look at them, and even sometimes I still do that. I got to know who’s around me as much as I can. I got to take it into my environment because you never know what’s going to happen. So I was on security mode. I had a girlfriend when I got out and we used to go places, and she used to be like, why you looking at her? I’m like, I’m not only looking at her. I’m looking at the kid that walked past me. I’m looking at the dude over here in the car, what we consider being on point. And that was one of the things that we want to consider, the bad habit, or maybe a safety mechanism.
Chris Hedges: Just getting approved for release is a hurdle even if prisoners have completed their mandatory sentences. I sat down a few days after Russ was released with him, Ron, and Boris, to discuss why so many people who are eligible are denied parole.
So the first hurdle for getting out is going before the parole board. And it is a hurdle, and a lot of people don’t make it. So Boris, you didn’t go before a parole board, but both, Russ, you and Ron did. Why don’t you begin Russ and just tell us how it’s set up and how difficult it is to get through a parole board after you’ve done your time?
Russ Owen: When I went before the panel, it was two people. And as I mentioned before, I went in there, and somebody was in there that was in previous to me. And there were some complications with that. The guy stormed out and then they made him go back in. So by the time I got in there, they asked me what my name is, what my number is. And you could tell that they weren’t prepared because right then and there, they were trying to read my case. And my crime involved a knife and the guy asked me, so where did you get the gun from? So it started off rocky, and it’s already an intimidating process, and I was already intimidated. So that made me even more, more anxiety filled me up, and it was aggressive. They questioned me about my education, and it wasn’t like, good job. It was, how did you get this education?
And then, I had caught a couple charges, minor charges, and I never did a time in the hole. I never did ad seg, but they were aggressive with the charges. And I was only in there for 15 minutes. And I got up and I left and I couldn’t believe it, I’m like, what just happened. And I thought it was a dream. And the guy told me to take more programs. And I couldn’t believe he told me to take more programs because I felt like I took every program already.
Chris Hedges: There are certain rules that, when you go before a parole board, you have to fulfill. So Gene Burta, he’s been in almost 40 years, I think. He keeps going before the parole board, and they ask him to express remorse for his crime. And he says he did not commit the crime and he won’t express remorse for something he didn’t do, and therefore he’s thrown right out the door and he’s denied parole. I want to talk about when you go before that board, they have whatever you were incarcerated for three decades plus earlier, they go through that with excruciating detail. And there are all sorts of traps that they set up. And if you’re not very deft about handling how you speak about that crime, you’re sent right back. So maybe begin, Russ, and you, Ron, talk about that process.
Russ Owen: Well, for them, you might have an idea in your head of what really happened, and what really happened might even be true. But they already have your narrative because you went to trial or you pled guilty, whatever it is that happened, they have the narrative on you. They wrote the narrative on you. So the trap is that you can’t go in there and change the narrative. On paper, you’re guilty. So you can’t go, it’s not a guilt or innocence process. For them, you’re already judged guilty. So when you go in there and you start arguing the facts of the case, no well that didn’t happen, this happened. They don’t want to hear that. If it says that you shot somebody seven times or stabbed somebody seven times, that’s what it is. So if you go in there and say, no, that’s not what happened, that’s already the trap. And once you start fighting back or trying to put in your own narrative, I think it’s downhill from there.
Chris Hedges: Even if it’s true.
Russ Owen: Even if it’s true. Even for me, there were a lot of things that came up that weren’t true, but you got to play the game. If you don’t play the game, you can see what’s going on with Gene and so many others, you get caught in that cycle and you’re not saying what they want to hear, unfortunately.
Chris Hedges: But there’s also, it’s not just about facts. There are all sorts of psychological states that they want you to have attained in order to be released. And if you’re not very attuned to what they’re looking for, however innocent and truthful and well-meaning, you’re finished.
Ron Pierce: Yeah. And you had mentioned remorse, and that came up, one of the parole panel told me after I went through the whole panel and talked to everybody, and it comes back and they ask you questions on their way back. They said, in all this process I haven’t heard you say anything that leads me to believe you’re remorseful. Now that in itself is a trap because he’s trying to make you go off and lose focus of who you are. So my answer to him I think helped me immensely in that I relayed to him not only but I’m sorry that you didn’t hear remorse in my narrative, but I’m remorseful not only for what I did to this man, but for how I took his choices away from him from that day to this day, how I took from his family the very dynamic that they can never get back. And I went through the process of how I was remorseful for the good he could have done for any community from that day till then, and how it was even remorseful for what I did to my family, my family has a hole in it. So by answering that, you could see his face change.
Chris Hedges: And when they get a hit, they say, there’s a certain number of years before you can come back. And some of those hits have been, am I right, up to 10 years?
Ron Pierce: The worst I’ve heard was 60, but I think that
Chris Hedges: 60 years? You can’t come back for 60 years?
Russ Owen: Steve Perry.
Ron Pierce: Yeah. Steve Perry got a 60 year hit. The court changed it to 15, but the parole board gave him 60.
Boris Franklin: The problem with that is like, I did go to parole once as a short termer. And when you go on a short term and you could very much remember the crime, I hadn’t moved that far from it. But when you’re doing long sentences, first, when you go in, there’s a depression because of everything that you’ve done, everything that you’ve lost, your children, your family, and the fact that you’ve committed this crime. So you spend all of these years trying to come out of this depression and get past that place. And now someone wants you to go back into that space in order to get your parole, which is problematic because now you have to relive the trauma. And I say this because the prison had approached me to do some programs for them. They thought I would be good for the programs to get grants.
So they wanted to put me in the program. So when [Trenton] came, they had to focus on the victim program. And they came to me and they said, well, could you get in that program? And then when [Trenton] comes, could you talk? And I said, first of all, I couldn’t do focus on the victim because I thought it was a bad idea. Because so many individuals were still seeing themselves as victims of their communities, of the systems, of all the social ills, and by then they had done enough reading to realize they had done something to someone and they were remorseful. But then they also were aware of what the system had done to them, which made some tension there. And that’s what you walk into the room with. Because now what you have to be essentially is when you walk into a parole meeting is an actor. When you go to classification, you have to be an actor.
Chris Hedges: Would it be correct, Boris, to say that if you came in and attempted in any way to talk about your own victimhood, however real, that would pretty much destroy your capacity to get parole?
Boris Franklin: You’re done. You’re done. They don’t want to hear you being a victim.
Chris Hedges: Join me next week for part two of The Long Road Home, where we examine the effects of mass incarceration on families, the criminal caste system, and the struggle by those who are released to reintegrate into American society.