Most of us have some idea of what ex-convicts experience about life after jail. Such as the tremendous difficulties they face when trying to find employment, or even a place to stay. But the reality is much stranger than that: for some prisoners, it’s more like visiting a whole new planet, or stepping out of a time machine.
Many of the things we take for granted seem alien to them, such as smartphones, robotic vacuums, plasma screens, and other new technologies. And they experience plenty of weird things that happen after getting out of jail, such as being paralyzed by having too many choices on a restaurant menu. But some of the weirdest things about getting released from prison are far more psychological than material. Going to the movie theater can be incredibly stressful for some, while the feeling of being completely irrelevant and out of place crushes others. Many former prisoners and ex-convicts have shared what life is like after getting out of jail, and all of their stories are fascinating.
Imagine being taken from your home, right now, and waking up somewhere in a foreign country where you don’t know the language and everyone avoids you like the plague. When you search through your pockets, you find an old $20 bill — and that’s it. That fear you feel about not knowing if you'll make it to morning is a fear that almost every ex-convict admits they feel about earning their freedom.
One of the biggest, most powerful things that a newly-released prisoner feels is isolation. And the longer they served in prison, the worse it feels. Institutionalization is a very real and very powerful psychological sickness where a former prisoner feels alone and vulnerable in a world that’s moving too fast to see. And this isolation occurs physically as well as mentally — people shy their kids away from them, employers throw their applications in the trash, and families refuse to return their calls.
Incarcerated people are fed specific meals on specific days, somewhat similar to how high school cafeterias operate. For example, they get pizza on Mondays, tacos on Tuesday, spaghetti on Wednesdays, and so on. Not only is the food often subpar, but that menu doesn’t change for a very long time — if at all. And because the US has an incredible abundance of food, groceries and restaurants become like Mecca to the convicts who earn their freedom.
And because meals are on a set schedule in prison, having no such reminder in real life can cause prisoners to simply forget to eat. They have been so far institutionalized that the incredibly simple process of sitting down for a meal can be a serious source of stress. And it isn’t just about having an external source regulating their schedules 24/7 - it’s the sudden influx of freedom, and all the choices that come along with it.
One former prisoner who was featured in a NY Times Magazine article explained how he picked up a particular pancake habit in jail:
"The trick, he said, is to save those packets of peanut butter and spread it on your pancakes, the next time there are pancakes. It sounds gross, but it’s not. ‘The only way I eat my pancakes now is with peanut butter — because that’s the way I ate them in there,' Roby explained."
Being in prison means living a highly regimented nearly monastic life. Every minute is accounted for, and every interaction is watched. In many prisons, even the races are segregated to tamp down on racial violence. Most prisoners are most comfortable in small groups, and often balk when they’re forced into situations that take them out of those groups.
So when they find freedom and are forced to go to places with high traffic such as shopping malls, subway stations, and restaurants, they often break down. The amount of strange people surrounding them is overwhelming to the point of being debilitating. It’s agoraphobia to the nth degree.
69 year old Otis Johnson is an ex-convict who served a 44 year prison sentence for attempted murder. Nowadays he’s just a quiet old man who enjoys people watching at Times Square, the busiest crossroad in the most populous city in the United States. And he’s constantly astounded by what he sees there. Such as people’s addiction to their smartphones, and our incessant use of earphones. He’s also flabbergasted by how much public phone prices have risen from a quarter to a full dollar. Even more so when he was told that no-one even used public payphones any longer - everyone already has their own personal phone in their pockets.