What It's Like to Be Released From Prison During a Pandemic

Just as the coronavirus is frightening everyone and forcing us to hide in our homes, I am beginning to enjoy freedom for the first time since I can remember.
Cathryn Virginia
illustrated by Cathryn Virginia
as told to Sabra Boyd

My sister Annie served 38 months in a Washington State prison for malicious mischief. After she was released, she paid a fee to transfer her parole case to Arizona because she wanted to start her life over in a “sunny place.” This is what her experience has been like.

The day in November I was released, I just knew that I needed to get away. As far away as possible from prison, my mother, from all the bad things that have happened to me. Like a lot of kids, I wanted to be a veterinarian but then life happened. My dad was really abusive, so my mom fled Arizona with us when I was seven. After a lot of moving around, and living without a home at all at some points, we finally settled into Port Angeles, Washington. Eventually, though, my siblings and I were all kicked out of our house as teenagers, all for different reasons.


So I paid $100 to transfer my parole outside of Washington, back to Arizona where I was born. I wanted to go back to a sunny place where I had some good memories. I found a job in a café that is famous for its pies, north of a town that didn’t exist when we were growing up there.

My sister and I used to race horses on the land where there is now a mall. As kids, we would gallop toward the sunset, passing cattle as they grazed on the public land where there is now a subdivision. Swirling paisley cul de sacs with identical homes in matching colors with names like Desert Rose and Navajo White. There is a golf course now on top of where the dump used to be.

My sister is concerned that I have a cough. I’ve always had a cough, but she is worried that it’s coronavirus when we talk on the phone. She asked me if I can take time off from work, but I didn’t want to get in trouble with my parole officer. And I need to pay my bills. My boss initially hadn’t planned to close the café, but the governor of Arizona issued an executive order restricting restaurants to takeout only in counties with confirmed COVID-19 cases.

It doesn’t really matter now because my boss laid me and my pregnant coworker off last Sunday. She said she didn’t want it on her conscience if one of us gets sick. I don’t know how I’m going to pay my rent or if I’ll get in trouble with my PO for not having a job anymore. I’m going to try to apply for unemployment, but I’m worried that I haven’t worked long enough to qualify. I heard that there is a freeze on evictions, so hopefully I can stay quarantined at home. Everything is kind of up in the air, but I’ve been homeless before and survived worse. I’ve learned that life will always throw you problems. I try to handle obstacles as gracefully as I can by accepting the things I can’t change. When I said this to my sister, she asked if I’d like to someday have an easier problem, like which house to buy: the one with two bedrooms or the property with a garden? I can’t imagine ever having a problem like that, though. My problems are usually about how to stay alive.


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My sister and I talk about how we feel like being homeless prepared us for a pandemic. Before I was arrested, I had been homeless on my own in the woods. I was living in a tent on a cliff above Dungeness Spit on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. Before that, we were homeless for some periods throughout childhood. I’ve survived so many things. I don’t feel worried about running out of toilet paper. I feel badly for the people who are scared, but I’m trying to focus on what makes me happy and being alive. My sister cries when I tell her about the details of my life now. She says they’re “happy tears.”

Being released from prison during the coronavirus pandemic has been surreal. Everyone is freaking out and hoarding toilet paper, but I’m just grateful that I get to be alone for the first time in years. When you think about it, it’s kind of a perfect metaphor for how crappy people are to each other. “Quarantining” is all that I want to do. I’m allowed to shower alone now, cook food that I like, wear real clothes, sleep in my own bed, and play with my two cats, Mischief and Bella. I tried planting flowers last week, but I don’t have a green thumb. I’ve always been better with animals anyway.

We laugh about how ironic it is that my life is suddenly so peaceful during a pandemic. Just as the coronavirus is frightening and forcing everyone to hide in their homes, I am beginning to enjoy freedom for the first time since I can remember. I feel a little guilty, being happy when everyone else feels so frightened. I feel so grateful to have a home where I can quarantine. I’m working on painting my new place and replacing the carpet myself. I really enjoy picking out the colors and I’m learning about interior design. I’ve never really had an interior to design before.

When I get home from the food bank, I play with my cats and cook whatever I want. I feel like a competitor on Iron Chef, figuring out what to cook with all the random ingredients and seasonings in the box. I’m so thankful to have a home and food. I love being able to walk outside in the sunshine and call my big sister whenever I feel overwhelmed or sad. My cats climb on me and ask for extra treats, reminding me of all the things that make me happy.

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