For Returning Citizens, Reentry Can Be a Second Prison
"You're used to the structured environment and people telling you when to wake up," says Jason. "[After prison] your freedom is given to you all over again. I don't think anything can prepare you for that moment."
Jason is a formerly incarcerated man originally from Detroit. In 2020, he and two other Prison Fellowship Academy® graduates—Hajee and Alona—allowed us to come along as they navigated life after prison. Today, their reentry stories unfold on screen in A New Day 1, a new documentary short film by Prison Fellowship®.
Three people. Three states. Three second chances at life on the outside.
THE HURDLES OF REENTRY: JASON, MICHIGAN
More than 600,000 people return home from incarceration each year. Many are released from prison with little more than a bus ticket and some cash.
Jason was released in May 2019 after serving five years. Rather than returning home, he chose to relocate to Muskegon on the other side of Michigan.
"My mom … didn't feel like it was a good idea for me to come back to Detroit," he shares. "There's a high probability that if I return to the place where I grew up, [I could return to my] old way of living and thinking and things like that."
Often, people leave prison without much support or stability. After prison, they face limited access to education, jobs, housing, and other necessities for a full and productive life. Jason, Hajee, and Alona each experienced exceptional levels of support, starting with the Prison Fellowship Academy. They were cared for postrelease by halfway houses, churches, family, and community.
Yet each of them still experienced difficult hurdles on the path forward.
THE SECOND PRISON: HAJEE, VIRGINIA
After serving 13 years behind bars, Hajee was released in the prison parking lot in January 2020. His mother Sheara was there to pick him up.
"I can't wait for the next chapter of his life—and mine," Sheara says. "I did the time with him."
Yet from the start, Hajee faced hurdles in finding steady employment, his search impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.
Most people behind bars will be released one day. For many, their criminal record stands in the way of their education, housing, and career. It can even leave people feeling unwelcomed in the pews at local churches.
When this happens, communities miss out. In fact, the U.S. loses some $78 billion a year in economic output because people with a criminal record cannot participate fully in the workforce.
And the absence of second chances can become a "second prison."
THE ULTIMATE TEST: ALONA, OKLAHOMA
In April 2020, Alona was released after serving seven years over three incarcerations. She returned to her family in Oklahoma City.
"I plan on going into a transitional home," she shares. "A place where me and my kids can go because I'm going to be a single parent with three kids."
When someone struggles to grasp a second chance due to collateral consequences, their children and families suffer too. Alona admirably took back her responsibility of being a mother and primary caregiver for her three children after her release. But her probation requirements, the rules of the transition home, and her struggles with employment took a toll on her.
"It seems like every day it's something," she shares later in her journey. "Like I have to do one more step with another person. … It's very tiresome."
All returning citizens face challenges, but parents face unique struggles. They are trying to stay afloat not just for themselves but also for their children.
Jason, Hajee, and Alona knew reentry wouldn't be easy. But when reality hit, every challenge felt like the ultimate test.
EVERY DAY IS A NEW DAY 1
If we believe people are made in the image of God and no one is beyond His reach, then we cannot ignore prisoners.
Recognizing the basic, God-given dignity of everyone, our culture should celebrate their worth and potential, regardless of their past. For Christians, the act of serving prisoners, former prisoners, and their families in the name of Jesus is not only a ministry. It's also a means of worship and spiritual growth.
We cannot effectively love and serve returning citizens without understanding the unique issues and challenges they face. Issues such as barriers to employment, the impact on families, mental health struggles, and social reproach. A New Day 1 allows us to witness the journeys of people leaving prison, so we might learn, empathize, and respond with the love of Christ.
We invite you to join us.
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