VICE is exploring America's prison system in the week leading up to our special report with President Obama for HBO. Tune in Sunday, September 27, at 9 PM EST, to see his historic first-ever presidential visit to a federal prison.
During my final year of imprisonment, I wrote a monthly update letter and addressed the envelope to the federal probation office in San Francisco. I had no idea which probation officer would be keeping tabs on me, but I coveted the highest level of liberty possible, and hoped to influence the officer who would be overseeing my release.
Shortly after surrendering to the halfway house in San Fran, I asked Charles, my case manager, if he knew which probation officer I'd be working with. He flipped pages through his thick red file.
"Looks like you've got Christine."
Charles gave me Christine's number and I set up an appointment, where we spoke for an hour. Although she hadn't received any of my letters, she said, she listened to me speak about my adjustment plans for building a career around my journey. Christine expressed support. Although I wasn't obligated, Christine invited me to attend a group meeting she held with other men who'd been released from prison.
I met Ronnie at the first and last group meeting I attended.
By then, many years had passed since I'd left a high-security prison. But when I was among the 2,500 men inside the 40-foot walls that surround the United States Penitentiary in Atlanta where I began my term, you could expect violence to break out on any given day—and when Ronnie walked into Christine's group-counseling session, I instantly recognized him as a shot caller, or gang leader. He had a shaved head. Lightening bolts and demons and swastikas sleeved out his arms in fading blue ink. He sat at the head of the table with a "Don't fuck with me" expression on his face.
Ronnie didn't have to say a word for me to know that he'd served his time in high-security facilities, and probably had done a few sordid deeds to earn his place as a shot caller on the yard. Something that was said often to me was, "It's easy to get respect in the penitentiary, so long as you're willing to pay the price"—Ronnie looked like he'd paid the price.
Christine introduced me to the group, telling them I'd been transferred to the halfway house after 25 years in prison.
"I was at that same halfway house," I remember Ronnie snarling. "Didn't last a week."
"Why not, OG?" someone asked. Clearly, the other men looked to Ronnie as a leader.
Ronnie went on to explain how, from the minute he got there, he felt out of sorts—or "out of pocket." People were slinging dope, women were turning tricks, and he didn't have a knife or pistol!
The other guys laughed.
Ronnie went on to explain how in In the pen—or federal penitentiary—everyone knew exactly how to act. The "big homie" on the yard laid down the law. People stuck to their own kind and adhered to established hierarchies. But none of the rules he'd been living by seemed to matter anymore. When he felt disrespected by a man touching his coffee and threw him inside of a locker, US Marshals showed up with the cuffs and chains.
That act of violence sent Ronnie back to prison.
Christine cut in and told us about the growth Ronnie had made since then and how proud she was of his adjustment. He concluded his sentence four years previously, and she considered him a role model because he'd been holding steady employment, an accomplishment few former prisoners can pull off.
Ronnie grew up in Richmond, California, a working-class community just north of Oakland. From the time between his 15th birthday and his release from prison at 49, he'd never experienced more than 12 consecutive months in free society. His last stretch kept him locked up for 20 years.
"Each time I got out before, I just kept doing the same ol' thing. Slinging drugs, doin' what I knew how to do, handlin' business," he said. "When I got out this time, I wanted to do right. Jus' didn't know how. I got a son who starts and quits jobs all the time like it's nothin'. I couldn't catch a job nowhere. Didn't even know how to look. When I go by a spot lookin' for work, they tell me to fill out some application on a computer. Never learnt how to use no computer in prison! Walmart wouldn't hire me 'cause the manager said I didn't exist in the credit world, said I never paid taxes, said I didn't exist. Couldn't believe that I couldn't get a job at Walmart."
"How'd you end up getting hired where you work now?" one of the men in the group who'd been discouraged by the job market asked.
Ronnie explained that a buddy turned him on to a temp agency. "I didn't even know what a temp agency was. Said they give day jobs. I'd been out of work for 18 months and was just trying to do right, trying to get my feet up under me. No one gave me a break. Kept asking about the gap in my resume. Wasn't nothin' there for 30 years. Didn't have no experience, no references.
"Finally got sent out on a couple of labor jobs, making 'bout eight, nine bucks an hour. When I did some dirty work hauling boxes in the hot sun that no one else'd do, I got asked if I wanted a full-time spot. Been working there for two years now, still can't earn a livable wage. Just don't know how to get along in a way to move up."
"What do you mean?" I asked. Like the other men, I was eager to learn more about the challenges of reentry.
"No one out here in society gets me," Ronnie said, leaning back in his chair. "In prison you learn how to carry yourself in a certain way. I don't know how to smile. I'm not mad—it's just the way I look. Certain facial expressions frighten people out here. I didn't want people approaching me in prison, so I had to look a certain way. That's just the way I am. Don't even realize that I'm doin' it out here. In prison I didn't want people comin' near me. Out here, people take me the wrong way."
The other guys laughed. They could relate.
Check out the moment President Obama meets with federal prison inmates as part of our upcoming HBO special on the criminal justice system.
"See, I can walk into any prison and I'm instantly gonna know what's going on. Don't even got to know no one in the room. I'm gonna know who's who and what's up. Out here, if I walk into a room of people I don't know, I'm uncomfortable. Don't know how to act. Feel like everyone's lookin' at me, judgin' me. That's why I just keep workin' the job I'm on. Even though I ain't earning much, don't want to go through the whole process of havin' to explain myself and my background all over again."
Ronnie told the group that he wasn't alone. He communicated with a few other guys who served long stretches in the penitentiary. They were the same way. The adjustments they made inside made them feel as if they'd missed something when they returned to society. He's as well-adjusted as he'll ever be, Ronnie said. But he told me that he felt more comfortable in prison than he would ever feel in society. "Those are my people in prison and I know how to handle myself in there. Don't know how to act out here. I missed a generation or something, and it's still a shock. I can't relate."
Six years have passed since Ronnie was released, and he's now finished with supervision from probation. I called him recently to see how the adjustment has progressed. He's 55 years old now, he told me, and somewhat concerned with retirement—he doesn't know what he'll do. He doesn't take vacations, sick days, or any time off. He recently got promoted from working in a warehouse to driving. He's been able to purchase his first house, he said, but had to take in four roommates to make ends meet.
"Now just got to hope that nothin' they're doin' brings me problems," Ronnie says.
His is a fairly typical story. The adjustment patterns that many people find necessary to cope in a "correctional" setting contrast with the adjustment patterns that tend to produce success in society. That's another reason we must reform our nation's sentencing and prison systems: They're designed to perpetuate failure, rather than create functional members of society.
Some former inmates like Ronnie succeed in overcoming anyway.