Getting Reacquainted With the World After Decades in Prison

Photo: Liz West

In the New York Times Magazine, Jon Mooallem follows two ex-convicts who pick up inmates the day they are released and help then navigate through their first day of freedom, which can be unnerving if they’ve been behind bars for more than a decade:

‘‘The first day is everything,’’ Carlos says — a barrage of insignificant-seeming experiences with potentially big consequences. Consider, for example, a friend of his and Roby’s: Julio Acosta, who was paroled in 2013 after 23 years inside. Acosta describes stopping for breakfast near the prison that first morning as if it were a horrifying fever dream: He kept looking around the restaurant for a sniper, as in the chow hall in prison, and couldn’t stop gawking at the metal knives and forks, ‘‘like an Aztec looking at Cortez’s helmet,’’ he says. It wasn’t until he got up from the booth and walked to the men’s room, and a man came out the door and said, ‘‘How you doin’?’’ and Acosta said, ‘‘Fine,’’ that Acosta began to feel, even slightly, like a legitimate part of the environment around him. He’d accomplished something. He’d made a treacherous trip across an International House of Pancakes. He’d peed.

But what if Acosta had accidentally bumped into a waitress, knocking over her tray and shattering dishes? What if that man had glared at him, instead of greeting him, or snapped at him to get the hell out of the way? Ann Jacobs, director of the Prisoner Re-entry Institute at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told me that even the smallest bungled interactions on the outside leave recently incarcerated people feeling ‘‘like they’re being exposed, like they’re incompetent. It’s feeding into their worst fear, their perception of themselves as an impostor who’s incapable of living a normal life.’’ Carlos and Roby have learned to steer their guys through that perilous newness — and to be nonchalant about it, to make the sudden enormity of life feel unthreatening, even fun. On one ride home earlier this year, I watched a third-striker venture inside a convenience store, alone, to buy a candy bar while Roby pumped gas. The man seemed emboldened after a few hours of freedom, actually hopping a bit as he walked. But then he tripped over the curb and tumbled forward, arms thrashing, nearly face-planting in front of the door. Roby just shrugged and said, ‘‘Well, you’ve got to get that one out of the way.’’

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