They say, “freedom is a process, not an event.” For those facing life after prison, this rings no truer. After incarceration, life can be a tangled, messy tapestry hanging in the shadow of a colossal incarceration industry. Prison was no joy, but the journey of rebuilding life, career, and family is nearly as arduous.
For Atlanta resident B. Lo*, 30, the fifth month of freedom is “like a delicate and tiring dance with uncertainty.”
"Every job rejection feels like a reminder of my past. It's a struggle to convince employers that I'm more than my record," Lo says.
A host of monthly fees and charges—each more insidious than the last—await newly released people and their families. Consider them a sneaky hidden tax taking a hungry bite out of one in every 75 Americans who are under probation or on parole supervision.
Lo went to prison at 27 years old for drug possession, theft by deception, and fraud. At the time of his arrest, he had already spent years struggling with what he describes as “a full-on tailspin,” courtesy of childhood physical and sexual abuse and mental health issues. He self-medicated his subsequent severe clinical depression with hard drugs, which compounded a desperate need for money.
Lo says he can't fully understand how he ended up in prison. And now pervasive prejudice clouds job prospects that, in turn, complicate reintegration. Lo gets rejected for jobs he is more than qualified for. He holds a degree in hospitality and management, with nearly 10 years in the guest services industry. But none of the hotel chains he has applied to will hire him, making a crucial step in rebuilding his life elusive.
While securing gainful employment is a big hurdle, Lo does not see this as his most significant obstacle, compared to repairing shattered family relations.
"The hardest part is trying to rebuild relationships,” Lo says. “Family and friends are cautious, unsure if they can trust the [more stable] person I've become."
But the struggle for normality even goes beyond gainful employment and fixing a busted family. Despite nearly five years of freedom, Chrissy Gonzales confronts additional challenges facing many formerly incarcerated persons. Her narrative unfolds against a backdrop of fees and senseless regulations that threaten to pull her back into the system’s clutches.
"Freedom should mean ‘liberation,’ but I'm still fighting battles that keep me tethered to the past," Gonzalez says.
A host of monthly fees and charges—each more insidious than the last—await newly released people and their families. Consider them a sneaky hidden tax taking a hungry bite out of one in every 75 Americans who are under probation or on parole supervision. Most states charge supervision fees ranging in price from hundreds to thousands of dollars, according to organizations like the Fines and Fees Justice Center. In addition to parole fees, those who were formerly imprisoned must also deal with programming fees for things like mandatory mental health counseling, addiction counseling, drug testing and electronic monitoring. In many states, if they can’t afford to pay their probation and assorted charges, they run a risk of being re-incarcerated or having their overpriced supervision extended by months, even years.
Just last month, courts snatched Gonzalez’s freedom away for several weeks and confined her to Gwinnett County Jail over a probation violation. The reason: She couldn't afford to pay for one of her probation-mandated classes after paying rent and other bills. This is not the first time this has happened, and Gonzalez says she fears it won't be the last without a significant income boost. What she dreads most is that next time it won't just be a few weeks in jail. Her probation could be revoked, and she might be sent back to serve out the rest of her prison sentence—losing everything she's fought for. Systemic hurdles like these persist long after release.
"Every missed payment, every new regulation—it feels like a trap. I've come close to going back to prison multiple times, not because of my actions, but because of a system designed to trip me up," Gonzalez’ says.
Neither Lo’s nor Gonzalez’s struggle with post-incarceration reentry are unique. Emily Shelton, a driving force behind prison watchdog nonprofit Ignite Justice, understands their fight. Shelton has witnessed both her husband and close friend be incarcerated.
"Rebuilding is a mosaic of challenges—from fractured relationships to the relentless stigma” Shelton says. “It requires a network of understanding, compassion, and practical assistance," adding more holistic support systems are pivotal to preventing recidivism. "The societal judgment and systemic barriers facing [Lo and Gonzalez] are profound. The battles that these two are fighting are fundamentally unjust and they serve no greater purpose than to generate revenue and increase so-called ‘recidivism’ stats via technical violations.”
Atlanta-based transgender attorney Lyra Foster says post-incarceration social and legal challenges are a daunting concern with so many deliberate legal roadblocks waiting to pounce.
“Freedom post-incarceration is an ongoing battle against systemic hurdles,” Foster says. "Legal advocacy is a crucial aspect of rebuilding. It's not just about defending rights but dismantling the systemic obstacles that perpetuate cycles of incarceration.”
Foster argues Lo’s and Gonzales’s struggles showcase the systemic challenges threatening to undo the nation’s thin progress. Societal empathy, legal reform, and comprehensive support systems are still shockingly absent in the most incarcerated nation on the planet. Comprising roughly 25% of the world's total prison population, the U.S. should be working toward dismantling barriers that perpetuate the struggle of people trying to rebuild their lives. She adds community interest and involvement are the only real ways to prevent people from being sent back to prison over a $60 class or pushed out of a suitable job by discrimination.
“Dismantling these obstacles requires a comprehensive approach and relentless pursuit,” Foster said. “When we become aware of these issues, we must act by whatever means we possess.”
C. Dreams is a writer and advocate who writes and lectures about prison and criminal justice reform, LGBTQ rights, harm reduction, and government and cultural criticism.