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.
Planning ahead made all the difference while I served my 25-year prison sentence, and especially when I was released. I earned university degrees and published books while inside, and earned an income, which meant I returned to society with enough money in the bank to launch a career. Within three weeks, I was an adjunct professor at San Francisco State University.
But most people who go through lengthy stays in the American prison system don't have the same fulfilling experience. Often, not long after they get out, people get dragged back in.
As a consequence of my outreach since rejoining society, formerly incarcerated people frequently reach out to me seeking guidance. One of them was Larry, a 58-year old black man who had a more typical experience returning to the public after a lengthy prison stay.
Larry grew up in St. Louis's infamous housing projects, where crime was rampant. Lee Rainwater, a well-known sociologist, once deemed one of them, Pruitt-Igoe, "a human disaster area." Larry told me that crime in the projects was simply a part of life for the thousands of black people who lived there. That environment influenced his adolescence and early adult years.
He dropped out of school in the 11th grade and started getting into trouble. When Larry was in his mid 20s, a judge sentenced him to serve a ten-year prison term for selling marijuana.
While inside, Larry earned his GED and worked in the kitchen bakery.
"I wouldn't say that I learned nothin' about bakin' when I was in prison 'cause there wasn't nothin' to learn," Larry tells VICE. "All you did was pour a big bag into a big pot. Then you'd add water and wait. That's how you cook in prison. Don't need to be no expert or have any kind a trainin."
Larry didn't seem to think his work in state prison wouldn't translate into any type of employment opportunities upon release. But as he approached the end of his term, he qualified for work release. The concept of work release is available in some criminal justice systems, such as Missouri's, but not in others. (Many people don't realize it, but our nation has 53 different criminal justice systems—each of the 50 states has its own criminal code and justice system, the District of Columbia maintains its own criminal justice system, the military has a criminal justice system, and the federal government has a criminal justice system.)
Larry told me that when qualified inmates approached the final 18 months of their prison terms, they could qualify to have jobs outside the prison. He welcomed the opportunity because it would allow him to develop real-world work experience while simultaneously allowing him to save resources he could use to transition into the regular world. During this period, Larry would line up alongside others on work release to leave the prison to board a bus, which delivered him and others to a turkey processing plant where they labored for eight hours each day. While on the job, Larry earned eight dollars an hour.
"The money I earned during my final year in prison made a huge difference," Larry told me over the phone. "When I got locked up, I didn't have no money. When my time came to walk out, I had $8,000 in the bank. Besides that, I had a job."
Larry concluded his obligation to the Missouri prison system in 1992 and continued working at the turkey plant for the next seven years. But steady employment ended for him in 1999, when federal authorities came knocking. After a jury convicted Larry for charges related to selling crack cocaine, a judge sentenced him to 30 years in prison.
I was confused. If he walked out of prison with $8,000 and a job, how did Larry get caught up in another crime?
"I just wasn't able to get out of poverty," he told me. "When I was in prison, on work release, the money I was earning all went into a savings account. But as soon as I got out, I needed to use the money to start my life. Needed to rent an apartment, buy clothes—just livin', man. Grown man can't pay no bills on the kind of money I was earnin' from work."
At first, Larry advanced his career at the turkey plant. By transferring to different departments, he was able to move into a supervisory role, earning $13 per hour. He worked long shifts, starting at 5 AM and working until two each afternoon. Then he invested $1,500 of his savings into renting a storefront with his fiancée, where they sold hats and casual clothing. But meager earnings always kept him living from one paycheck to the next, always too close to poverty.
"I used to go see a partner of mine, just hung out with him. He was making a little money selling drugs. I could see what he was doing. I asked him about it. He told me what was goin' down and I just thought about it. Thought I had a plan. I knew people in St. Louis who would sell me cocaine at a better price. One day, after bein' out of prison for 'bout three years, I had enough of not havin' enough. I drove over to St. Louis and bought some cocaine from someone I knew. I brought it back to Springfield and that was it. My partner sold it and gave me the profit. Real quick, I got addicted to the money and kept on doin' it."
Larry told me that he collected about $5,000 a month selling drugs on the side.
"I thought I had a plan, thinkin' that if I bought the drugs and gave them to a partner to sell, no one would ever catch me. But I didn't plan on people tellin' on me. That was one thin' I didn't plan on." He laughed. "Turns out my plan wasn't so good."
"When you reverted to selling drugs," I asked Larry, "didn't you have anxieties or fears about going back to prison?" Many former inmates who contacted me told me that since they couldn't make ends meet in society, the thought of returning to prison didn't deter them.
"Like I said, I thought I had a plan and I thought I could avoid bein' caught or sent back to prison," he replied. "But I was wrong. Jus' didn't think it through too good."
After serving 13 years, Larry benefited from a change in sentencing laws, when President Barack Obama signed legislation that reduced sentences for people who had been convicted of selling crack. Previously, those who were convicted of selling crack cocaine were sentenced 100 times more severely than people who were convicted of selling powder cocaine. The new law resulted in Larry's release in 2013.
Check out the moment President Obama meets with federal prison inmates as part of our upcoming HBO special on the criminal justice system.
I asked Larry about how his adjustment has gone since being released from prison the second time.
"I'd say it was harder," he answered. "The feds don't offer no work-release program. I went to the halfway house. My brother hooked me up with a job at the salvage yard makin' $8.50 per hour. Wasn't much, but least it was a job. Trouble was that rules required me to give 25 percent of my gross wages to the halfway house. On a 40-hour week, I'd earn 'bout $340 before taxes. Right then I'd have to give 25 percent, or $85 to the halfway house. I'd also have to pay taxes, pay the bus, and pay for livin'. Can't get no traction on that."
Larry has been free from prison for nearly three years now, but he still struggles. He's grateful to have a job cleaning exhaust systems, working all the hours that are available to him. He needs to work hard, he says, because the job only pays $12 per hour.
"All I do is work now. Don't take no time off, sure 'nuff don't want be 'round no drug dealers. Just trying to get ahead and stay out of trouble."