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How Do You Readjust to Society After Decades in Prison?

Inside a reentry program in Baltimore that helps men get back on their feet after spending long bids behind bars.

Seth Ferranti

Seth Ferranti

Martin McNair in front of the Mi Casa Su Casa house in Baltimore. Photo by Tracey Brown

Baltimore has seen a lot of bad press lately because of the Freddie Gray tragedy, the subsequent riots, recurring gang violence, and questionable law enforcement practices. But there's hope for the future in the form of local criminal justice initiatives like Mi Casa Su Casa (MCSC), a supportive housing program for those who've been stuck behind bars for years or even decades. Since its founding in 2013, the group has helped about two dozen men successfully transition back into the community and inch toward becoming productive members of their community. That's no small feat in any arena, but given the tumult that has gripped Baltimore lately, it represents a significant achievement—after all, with police helicopters flying overhead, narcotic cops on patrol, abandoned and boarded-up buildings, and drug dealers on the corner, living in Baltimore's hardest neighborhoods isn't exactly easy.

"What I'm seeing is that dudes have a lot of scar tissue from being in the battle field of incarceration for so long," Martin McNair, Mi Casa Su Casa's senior coordinator, tells VICE. "This is our opportunity to offer the wraparound services officially that we've been offering, unofficially, in our community. We have the clinic in place with a results-driven [approach] to assist the men that come into our program."

Along with Director Carlton Carrington, Martin thinks he's actually making change on the volatile streets of Baltimore.

"We partnered with [criminal justice advocate] Walter Lomax, the Public Defender's Office, and the University Of Maryland Law School Forensic Social Work Clinic to provide housing for the geriatric reentering citizens in 2014," Martin says. "These are men that were lifers who were released [after] the Unger Decision [a ruling that declared many verdicts were invalid because incorrect instructions were given by judges to juries]. These people had jury trials in the late 60s up until 1981, and were found guilty by a jury and sentenced by the same jury. While these partners were doing great things getting these guys their freedom, the only opposition was housing the ones that needed [it] once they got released, especially if they didn't have any family support.

"A lot of these men have outlived their families, being gone for three to five decades, and literally have no family at all or the family they have they don't know," Martin adds.

A man named Boogaloo is one of the ex-lifers currently in the program. He did 51 years and never expected to see the light of day. After such a significant amount of time behind bars, Boogaloo had an incredible transition to make, one the Mi Casa Su Casa staff was ready to help with.

"It's been a slow process," Boogaloo tells VICE. "It was hard to get my birth records and stuff from the archives. I didn't have the right information and I had to go back and recycle everything so that I could get identification."

Boogaloo also had to re-familiarize himself with the city because so much had changed during the half-century he'd been out of commission. It didn't hurt that he kept the right perspective while locked up. "They locked up my body but not my mind. I kept my mind free," he tells VICE. "I wasn't in a mental cage."

Which is not to say the fundamental changes in American life since the Jim Crow era haven't been overwhelming at times.

"I had to get out here and regroup and re-familiarize myself with society," Boogaloo says. "I'm still not really comfortable with the phones. When I got locked up, all they had was house phones. When I came out with all this cell phone stuff, it was like I was suspended in time."

That's just one of the challenges men like Boogaloo face. I encountered similar problems when I got out of federal prison a year ago myself. At the time of my incarceration in 1993, there wasn't much in the way of the Internet, and social media and smartphones were a ways off. In the first weeks I spent outside, I was always asking my wife to help me navigate the intricacies of the digital frontier. Now I'm a pro on my iPhone 6 Plus; it was just a matter of learning how to use the technology, and perhaps more importantly, I had the desire to master it.

Photo by the author

"The problems most ex-offenders and reentering citizens face, especially the ones coming out of long-term bids, are that they are realistically scared and terrified of what this new world has to offer," Martin tells VICE. "It's like a lot of them are Rip Van Winkle. When they went in several decades ago, there were no smartphones, dollar stores, bank cards, Bluetooths in the car... They see the young guys coming in the prisons and have a distorted sense of what 's out here when they return. For a lot of them, the only window to the outside world is what they see in the media."

And pop culture can only convey so much.

"What really baffled me was the credit cards," Boogaloo says. "They didn't even have credit cards when I got locked up. When I went up to an ATM machine, I didn't really know how to work the machine or none of that stuff. When I went to the store, I went up to the cashier and said, 'Can you help me out? I just got out of prison and I don't know whats going on with this credit card machine.'"

The material things we take for granted—and suspect we couldn't live without—can be a tremendous obstacle to those coming out of the belly of the beast. And while Martin teamed up with the Abell Foundation and OSI (Open Society Institute) to provide housing, grand plans on paper haven't always translated to reality.

"We found that MCSC staff was the ones teaching social skills, financial literacy, life skills, and any other skill that these men needed," Martin says. "These guys related to us better than the social workers, due to my partner and I being around them daily. What we soon realized, during the pilot portion process of interacting with these guys, was that the moneys and the time wasn't enough. There was no cookie-cutter process with this demographic. Each man getting released was different—some could hit the ground running, navigating his way through the city on public transportation, and then one was terrified to go out on his own to the corner store."

Take Al, another resident at the house who got released after doing a 36-year sentence. He gave it a go when he first got to the house, but on one of his first days back out in society had en encounter that made him want to go back to a cage.

"I don't go out. I think I would be better off back in prison," Al told VICE. "I lived good in prison. I'm struggling here. I stay in this courtyard here. I don't like to go out unless someone is with me. When I first got here, I went out jogging and a police officer called me over and asked for my ID and I didn't have any ID. I told him I just got out of prison and was at the reentry house and he asked me, 'How long were you in?' I told him a long time and he questioned me. 'Ten years? 'Longer.' 'Twenty years?' 'Longer.' 'Thirty years?' 'Longer.' 'How long?' 'Thirty-six years,' I told him and he said, 'Well, you're a real piece of shit, go back to your house and don't ever come out in this neighborhood.' You wouldn't think that anything like that would happen, but it did."

Mi Casa Su Casa does its best to prepare these guys for the street, but they can't account for everything. The group runs a very structured program because these guys who've done multiple decades inside are used to formal scheduling. The house has rules on the wall like "Respect your fellow residents," and signs that read, "No weapons allowed," "No drugs allowed," and "No visitors in the rooms or above the first floor,"

Martin tries to keep the atmosphere's regimentation simple, but firm.

Photo by the author

"We help them by initially acknowledging what's needed for them to be successful. We focus on the resident 's mindset first, how and what they are feeling about coming into the free world again," he tells VICE. " Then MCSC's clinician will put a realistic plan of action for them to execute along with ours staff and case managers' assistance."

Martin and Mi Casa Su Casa are providing a much need service, especially with the prison reform movement having recently been embraced by President Obama. We're at the end of the tough-on-crime cycle now, and there's hope that a kinder and smarter approach to imprisonment will replace replace the draconian model.

Reentry advocates like Martin are just trying to keep up with the demand.

"A lot of people don't want to deal with the population of people we deal with for reasons being something that they did decades ago," he says. "Misinformation is one of the greatest injustices that affect us all—it has no barriers."

The program has expanded to three houses, and Martin intends to make moves into drug treatment programming, job training, behavior modification, and more.

"We want to see everybody we encounter win, whether they want to or not," Martin says.

To learn more about this program, check out their website here.

Follow Seth Ferranti on Twitter.

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