This article was published in collaboration with the Marshall Project.
I was released in 2015, after serving 20 years for murder in New Mexico. While inside, I worked as a baker in the cafeteria at the Corrections Department. Then, when I got out, my first job was in that same kitchen, serving green-chili cheeseburgers and burritos and chicken-fried steak.
I was the first ex-prisoner allowed to work in the state system as part of something new called the Returning Citizen Program. The idea was that the Corrections Department would hire guys back after they got out. The goal was to reduce recidivism, to give people the skills they need to be successful.
They needed someone who would represent the new program well, and I think it helped that I had interacted with the public already, selling bracelets and earrings I’d made at a prison craft fair. I donated the profits to the Ronald McDonald House, and the program officials had let me be interviewed by a newspaper while I was still inside.
I was a bit apprehensive about going back to the same place I’d been incarcerated all those years. But this was different, since I wouldn’t actually be living in a prison. Mostly, I was afraid of small things: What if I did my taxes wrong, and the IRS sent me back to prison for real? What if I accidentally violated my parole?
After I was accepted, but before I was first released, I was so careful, following every little regulation to the letter. It felt like all eyes were on me. I made sure I didn’t have one too many blankets in my cell. I said to my bunkies, "You do your time, and I'll do mine. You want to have an extra blanket, you knock yourself out, but if they try to shake you down, don't throw it on my bunk.”
Once I got out, I was just as careful: I wasn’t allowed to have alcohol in my house, so I asked my girlfriend to get rid of her cooking sherry.
My “new” gig in the kitchen went smoothly, for the most part. A lot of the prisoners working with me were really supportive, since they hoped they might get a similar opportunity. Still, I could tell some had lost their respect for me for what they saw as “switching sides,” though they wouldn’t actually say anything since it might get them in trouble.
A lot of officers didn’t have all that much respect for me, either. A few said, “Hey, I want extra,” trying to get me to give them another portion of food for the same price. “Well, extra costs me,” I’d say, “so it costs you, too.” They’d try to exert the same authority they had over me when I was locked up. I wouldn’t let them.
After about nine months, my boss quit, and I was elevated to running the kitchen. I got to design meals and work out the profit margins. A few more ex-prisoners were hired. One of them called me a few times, and I tried to talk him through the anxiety that came from being watched so closely, even as a free man. It never gets better, I said. A lot of prison employees did not believe that an inmate should ever come back and work inside a correctional facility, that we were just going to smuggle in drugs and contraband.
Then a local news station ran a story on me. I watched it with trepidation: You never know how the media might spin something. But the story was very positive. I was hurt afterward when I read some of the comments online—they said I didn’t deserve my job, sometimes using nasty language—and I carried that hurt with me. But someone at the department recalled telling the reporter that I was the kind of person she would entrust to babysit her three-year-old daughter. That she might put that kind of trust in me made me feel a lot better.
Still, being the first person to participate in the jobs program was stressful at times. One day, a high-ranking corrections official stopped me in the hallway and said, “Just so you know, if you hadn’t been successful, that would have been the end of the program.” Gee, thanks, I thought. No pressure!
After a couple of years, I left the program. I had some medical issues and didn’t show up for work, but it wasn’t meant to last forever. Now I’m looking for a job again.
Some inmates say, “When I get out, I’m just going to file for welfare; I don’t know how to function in society.” I get the attraction to being lazy, to having Uncle Sam pay the bill, but I don’t think it’s right. There are so many of us trying to find work, and I’m proud to have played my small part.
David Van Horn served 20 years of a 40-year sentence for the 1995 arson murder of Norma Clouse, and for shooting two law enforcement officers, crimes he committed while high on methamphetamine. He was released on parole in 2015. More on his case, and the wider practice of ex-prisoners rehired to work by corrections agencies, can be found here.