This story originally published online at NC Newsline.
Of all the things he hadn’t seen in the last 14 years, Tyrone Baker most wanted to see the night sky. He wanted to gaze at the stars without being told he needed to get back in his cell.
But if the vast expanse of the darkness above proved comforting, the low ceilings in his mother’s house felt frightening. It was 2020, and Baker had just come home from prison, where the ceilings had towered over him. It took time for him to feel safe again, but it came eventually.
“You can’t do decades in prison, seeing the things that we’ve seen, and it not cause more trauma,” said Baker.
He had left the cell, but sometimes the cell hadn’t left him. He can still remember the scraping sound he’d hear late at night. He didn’t know what it was at first, but eventually he figured it out: someone in the cell next to him was sharpening a weapon on the floor. Tomorrow could bring violence.
Baker recounted the pain from the time he spent in prison, and the challenges of coming home, in a discussion in Durham on Wednesday night. Each of the panelists—including Brian Scott, executive director of Our Journey, who moderated the discussion—had spent time in prison and were still adjusting to life in the free world.
The Wilson Center for Science and Justice at Duke Law and the Durham County District Attorney’s Office sponsored the event, which was held at the end of National Second Chance Month.
“Here in Durham, we are trying to do better,” Satana Deberry, the county district attorney, told the crowd. And what that means, she explained, is acknowledging that people can change, that those who go to prison are not necessarily the same person when they are sent home.
“As prosecutors, that’s hard for us. Because what we’re taught to do is to lock them up and forget about them,” Deberry said. “And it is up to us as a community to see that change, to acknowledge that change, and make sure that those stories are heard.”
Change was a recurring theme in the panel’s discussion. Randall Jenkins, another panelist, said he was worried about living with his family again after spending three decades behind bars before coming home in 2021.
“They knew me at 27,” he said. “They didn’t know me at 57.”
Jenkins credited the rehabilitative programs he completed while incarcerated as critical in helping him grow. He got an associate’s degree, worked in the canteen, took self-help classes; He even learned to weld, which got him the job he has now that he’s free.
“These programs are essential,” he said.
But he sees that experience as the exception, not the norm.
“Rehabilitation doesn’t exist in prison,” Jenkins said. “They took away everything that a man or woman can use to better themselves when they get outside the fence.”
Almost 16,500 people were released from North Carolina prisons in the 2020-2021 Fiscal Year, three-quarters of whom were placed on some kind of supervision.
People released from prison often have trouble getting jobs or renting an apartment because of their criminal record, a scarlet letter that can extend a person’s punishment long after they have served their time. Stable housing and employment are crucial foundations for a person’s successful transition to living outside of prison; without them, people are more likely to wind up behind bars again.
Asked Wednesday night to recall a small-but-important victory since getting out of prison, Scellarneize Holloman smiled.
“Getting a job,” she said.
Formerly incarcerated people face an array of other barriers once they are released. Accessing public education is a challenge, they can be disenfranchised from voting depending on whether they are on supervision and where they live, they may be ineligible for public benefits; the myriad of challenges makes it difficult for a person to achieve stability in their life, potentially making them more likely to be imprisoned again.
A report published last year by the North Carolina Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission found that almost half of people released from prison were rearrested within two years; more than one-third wound up back in prison.
Baker said he didn’t think the prison system helped him address the root causes of his crime and didn’t help make to make better choices with his life. Corrections staff make all the decisions for someone when they are in prison: when they can eat, when they can change clothes, when the lights are shut off.
“You put me in a place where all decisions are made for me, and then you release me, and you’re like, ‘Woah, now you have decisions to make about housing, about transportation, about services, about all these major life decisions,’” Baker said. “It’s a decade and a half where I spent, where somebody else was making decisions for me. So now you expect me to be a supreme outstanding, decision-maker?”
The trauma of imprisonment and the lack of preparation for the outside world make it harder to support people coming home from prison, he added.
“Guys should come home whole individuals,” said Baker.
There wasn’t a lot of policy discussion — things elected officials could change to make reentry easier. But one of the throughlines of the night’s conversation was the importance of humanizing those who spent time in prison, to recognize their humanity and understand that they are struggling.
Jenkins had suggestions for those who wanted to support formerly incarcerated people: Be understanding. Be patient.
Above all: “Try to understand who this person is now,” Jenkins said. “Not who he was.”
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