Change of Plans: Thoughts on Six Years Behind Bars

by Daniel A. Rosen |

Out there in the real world, time is the one thing no one has enough of. You can’t buy or create more. In here, time is all you have. It’s considered the enemy, the thing you dread, the commodity you find ways to kill, to waste, to purposefully squander. People play cards, or sleep, or watch TV, or get high – anything to make the hours pass.

This experience is painful precisely because it’s time away from everyone and everything you love. You just want it to be over so you can return to those things, whoever or whatever they are. I guess I want to do more than that, though. I want to also look back on these last years and know they weren’t wasted, know it was time well-spent. Six years – or, to be exact, 2184 days and nights, close as i can figure it – is a lot of time to squander, after all. Only 60 of those days remain now, and that’s an indescribable feeling.

When I had about 10 weeks left, I was quarantined for unspecified Covid exposure – they won’t tell you the suspected source. It was a good reminder that things can change fast. It’s no fun getting called to the control booth and handed a trash bag, and told: “Pack your stuff.” Unless it’s to pack up and go home, that is.

Disruption to often hard-won routines and dislocation like this quarantine is unwelcome, but I’ve ended up being grateful for it. I realize that in just about 8 weeks, an even bigger change is coming in the form of reentering the real world, and this little disruption was good practice. You get comfortable in your habits and patterns, especially here where there’s little else to take comfort in, and adapting to new circumstances can be tough. So, practicing change is actually pretty welcome right now.

I heard about a podcast called “A Slight Change of Plans” and thought: “Yeah, that sounds familiar.” It’s hosted by a former classical violinist, Dr. Maya Shankar, who studied with Itzhak Perlman until a hand injury ended her music career at just 15 years old. She realized then she’d been defined solely by her instrument, and with it gone she’d need to find a new identity.

It’s really hard to see the opportunity in that kind of unplanned, unwanted change, but once you do it’s so powerful. I can honestly say that as brutal as the past six years have been at times, I’ve finally come to see the opportunity in it – the potential now to be the man I want, to do what truly fulfills me, and to see myself more honestly too. The point, maybe, is that it’s not about what’s lost but rather what’s gained when those original plans go sideways on you.

I’ve seen a lot of people get squirrelly in their last months – it’s just fear and failure to see any promise in their future. They know it’s harder to make it out there in the community than here in this artificial bubble we live in. And the system isn’t going to help them much – even as it pays extensive lip service to the notion of reentry.

I’ve come to believe after these six years that there are a few foundational flaws in our prison systems. There are innumerable smaller (and serious) flaws, of course – but these few fundamentally undermine the entire notion of justice and corrections. There are, first, far too many people – especially people of color – behind bars. At least half don’t belong there, and their presence makes it impossible for those who do belong there to get help. Second, there’s far too much profit motive built into the system, often related to indifference about the conditions of confinement (also see “The Punishment Economy“). And third, our recidivism rates are shameful and deserve serious attention. Sadly, coming back to points number one and two, there’s profit in recidivism.

I’m clear that the rest of my career will be devoted to addressing all three of these issues, but in the near term, working on recidivism is the low-hanging fruit. I can’t call myself an expert on reentry – I’m about to experience it myself for the first time. But I’ve heard countless stories from fellow inmates caught in the revolving door of recidivism about how easily it happens.

Over three-quarters of returned citizens fail at reentry within five years, and end up back behind bars. That’s an astonishing rate of failure, and it says we don’t really care much as a society about successful reentry. Most fail because they don’t have a stable living situation or a secure and well-paying job.

So, I’m planning to focus some energy on what’s likely the easiest aspect of this problem – steady employment (also see “Short Handed? Have I Got A Guy for You.”). We can do much better – especially with so many open jobs now – to provide returning citizens with stability in the form of a paycheck.

This is my plan, and I’m working now to realize it. I intend to bring it to fruition, but if not – it’ll be time for a change of plans. See you on the other side.

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