Drugs

This Is How It Feels to Walk Out of Prison After 21 Years

In 1993 I went to prison for a first-time, nonviolent drug offense.

Photo Credit: Gts / Shutterstock.com

The following first appeared on Substance.com

I woke up on the morning of July 31 at 4 am, feeling apprehensive, elated and ready to take on the world. For most of the 2.2 million people behind the fence in this country, it was just another day. For me, it was the day I would leave prison for the last time.

I was scheduled to report to R&D (the Receiving and Discharge department at FCC Forrest City) at 11 am to be processed out. Those last hours seemed to take forever. It was all coming to an end, after two decades and counting. I was finally going home—or to the halfway house at least. I felt the immensity of it in my gut.

I went to R&D with four other men, all of us recent graduates of the Bureau of Prisons’ Residential Drug Abuse Program (RDAP). There was Machete, a 50-something Mexican who did 10 years on a meth charge; Turbo, a 26-year-old who did eight years on a meth charge; Curt, a 42-year-old who did five years on a cocaine charge; and Boosie, a 33-year-old who did nine years on a cocaine conspiracy.

My original 25-year mandatory minimum sentence for selling marijuana and LSD was by far the longest among us. It makes me angry to think of all I have been made to endure due to draconian mandatory minimum sentencing laws. As a first-time, nonviolent offender, I didn’t deserve the sentence I served. But I survived it, and now hope to add my voice to the movement against the senseless War on Drugs.

At R&D they gave us our street clothes and I changed into my blue polo shirt, red plaid shorts and grey Nike Shox. The other guys said I looked like I was going out to play golf. But it felt good to be in real clothes again.

As I sat waiting in R&D, a lot of thoughts ran through my head. I was 22 when I came in. A young, spoiled, immature kid, addicted to drugs and addicted to the criminal lifestyle. I thought I was above the law, an outlaw of epic proportions. I romanticized my life as a drug dealer. I was counterculture, off the grid, living how I wanted. At the age of 43, I no longer have those illusions. But I see myself now as a mature, educated and responsible man.

I have a lot of work to do. But I feel like I’m well prepared. I haven’t used any drugs for over 10 years. And being in the RDAP unit, a more restrictive and pro-social prison environment, for the past two-and-half years has helped me to unravel my convict/criminal mentality. I was practicing positive self-talk, rational thinking and self-analysis, and changing my thinking, behavior and beliefs. Like a football player, who practiced, practiced, practiced, I now feel ready for the game. Or like the dude in The Matrix, who just wants to be plugged back into the Matrix, I want to be plugged back into the real world and live as a regular, taxpaying, productive citizen.

As I waited, I was tense and stressed—not so much that I was freaking out, but I sure had some butterflies. For one thing, I knew the world I was walking into had changed dramatically since I last saw it.

In 1993, we had no Internet. There were no smartphones or touch screens or cars that drive themselves. Plenty of other things have happened to the world that I had read about or imagined, but never experienced. In this sense, I’m like a time-traveler. So I cautioned myself to proceed slowly and be patient. I knew I would feel overwhelmed, but everything would come in time.

They finished up the paperwork. They opened the door to R&D and I walked out,  towards the control building, where they asked me my name and number and escorted me through various metal detectors and, finally, the front gate.

I stepped out into a cloudy, overcast day. But some rays of sun hit me on the face as I took my first deep breath of air in the free world in 21 years.

It was exhilarating to be outside, not surrounded by a fence. We were ushered into a van and driven to the local bus station in Forrest City, Arkansas—a bumfuck little town that survives off the prison industry. It felt unbelievable: all those years locked up, of being transported in handcuffs and chains—and now the five of us, all ex-felons with hard time under our belts, were just dumped at the little mom-and-pop bus station in rinky dink country.

Waiting for the bus with the others, I thought about other ways I’ve changed over the years. Being the kind of guy who was “in the mix”—involved in the politics and drama of prison life—didn’t appeal to me anymore. Holding things down, regulating stuff or running things in prison, having a solid reputation, used to be important to me. But now, what was it worth?

I walked out of prison, I believe, capable of doing whatever it takes to keep my freedom—and my sobriety, which is a necessary component of my freedom. The process to get here wasn’t so much giving up the old me, more of reverting to who I was when I was just a kid, before I got involved in drugs and crime. It was a matter of stripping off the layers: the tough guy facade, the anti-authority, fuck-the-world mentality. That was never me—just someone I invented to impress others.

All five of us guys went through the drug program together and now we were moving on by Greyhound. Curt was going to Florida, the rest of us to Missouri. I got on the bus and said goodbye to my old life.

At the end of the long bus journey, I caught a taxi and arrived at the halfway house in St. Louis in the middle of the night. It was a shock to be back in the real world, and around people other than prisoners. The big thing I noticed the next day is that everyone seemed to be walking around like a zombie, with their attention on a smartphone or tablet. I was kind of envious because I wanted to experience the Internet also, but that, too, will come.

I’m due to remain at this halfway house for six months before I can go to live with my wife. It is ok. It seems like an old boarding house or something. About 200 men live here, and I’m in a dorm room. When I get a job, I can move to a two-man room. The food and accommodations are better than prison, for sure.

I am already going out on job search passes, attending interviews. I ride shotgun with my wife, who chauffeurs me around. I am going to work as a cook for now. I had one job at a restaurant—but as soon as they found out I was in the halfway house they decided not to go through with the hire. But I got a couple of other interviews lined up.

The halfway house set-up is based on ex-offenders working and paying 25% of their gross incomes to the facility. By giving the halfway house its cut I can earn additional privileges and passes, culminating in a 54-hour weekend pass and, finally, home confinement. Technically I am still under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Prisons, but it’s way more laid-back here. I have the chance to earn more freedom—all I have to do is work and follow the rules.

Still, as an RDAP graduate I am under a lot of scrutiny, and will be subject to random urine tests and aftercare. If I fail a drug test I will be sent back to prison—there’s a zero-tolerance drug and alcohol policy here.

But that’s ok, as I have no intention of using again. I know that recovery—from addiction and from prison—is an ongoing process, and I welcome the chance to prove that I belong in the world.

Christopher Hoss is a pseudonym for a writer who received a 25-year mandatory minimum prison sentence in 1993 for a first-time, nonviolent offense.