Etiquette for Ex-Cons
"I had $40 in my pocket when I came out," Jan Warren was saying with a shrug. "And my stock didn't triple when I was inside."
No two cases are ever the same, of course. Jan Warren isn't Martha Stewart – or vice versa.
But there are certain lessons one woman can teach another about coming out of prison and adjusting to life outside. Even if one did 12 years, four months and 17 days on a Rockefeller drug rap. Even if the other is coming home after five months for lying about a stock trade – with a reality-TV show waiting for her.
Martha, meet Jan. You should listen to what she says.
Think of what follows as one former inmate's gift to another. Here, in her words, is Jan Warren's 10-Step Ex-Con Etiquette. "It's a good thing," as the old Martha would certainly have said.
1. Follow the rules. You may be out of prison, Martha. But with supervised release and home detention, the government is still very much in charge of you. Don't linger too long in the garden. Don't come home late from work. Don't slip out of the bracelet or drink too much or give anyone any excuse to send you back again. You can finally taste your freedom. Don't blow it.
2. Don't try to hide the ugly truth. Always be open with the people you meet. It's OK to say, "Hi, I'm Martha. I just got out of prison." You don't have to be uncomfortable. Your honesty gives you control. Others can react immediately and directly to you. You're sending a message that says, "This is what I did. I'm not proud of it. But I'm moving on."
3. Expect people to be curious. You've just been somewhere very few of your friends have. You've come back with your sanity and humanity intact. Of course, people will ask you about it. But they may not want to hear too much. Don't be surprised if they ask you once, then never again. They'll say they don't want to dwell on it. Actually, it makes them uncomfortable.
4. Don't forget the people who stood by you. I had my sister Sherry, who answered every collect phone call I ever made. You can never thank these people enough. Hundreds and hundreds of women I met in prison who had nobody – no visits, no packages, nothing to make them believe that somebody, somewhere, cared what happened to them. You were fortunate. Be grateful.
5. Expect the world to have changed. My gap is bigger than yours, but you will have missed some things, too. In my 12 years, computers really came onto the scene. We already had cell phones, but they were much bigger. And we didn't have to dial so many area codes. I remember Jean Harris coming back and saying, "Everything is numbers now. You have to just keep pressing numbers into the phone." Even after five months, you'll notice the world has moved on.
6. Expect to notice things you never did. When I came out, I still smoked. I think I was the only woman in New York to put out her cigarette completely and then put it in the trash can. And I knew that every one of the wire trash cans on the street was made by women inmates at Albion. They had a welding shop, and it was the best-paid job at Albion. I knew that now. I was kind of paying tribute to them. I pointed that out to everyone.
7. Strike a balance over time. Some women, when they come out, say they are surprised by all the traffic. That didn't bother me. But I was the only one standing on the corner at the red light. I'd be at the corner. No traffic. Everyone else would cross. That was jaywalking. That's illegal. I could get violated for that. But then I noticed the police officer looking at me as I just stood there. I told myself, "Well, maybe I can cross."
8. Use the platform you've been given. You are in the public eye. You have this new experience. You've gained perspective you never had. Recognize all that. Bring it together. Tell the truth about prison. It'll give meaning to your experience and your new life outside.
9. Don't worry, you'll still be you. For Martha it may be cooking. Or working in the garden. But all the things you liked to do, you'll like them still. And you'll still remember how. When I went skiing for the first time, I wondered, "Will I be able to?" Well, it really was like riding a bike. No one took it away from you.
10. Don't make the same mistake again. Whatever got you into trouble last time, recognize where that came out of your character. You really didn't need to do it, but you did. Look what happened when you were away. Kmart is merging with Sears – and your stock went up all on its own. No inside information at all.