Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Man From Mars

On the streets, without a license

By Woody Eargle

SEPTEMBER 29, 1997:  When the United States finally sends men to Mars, it should send a spaceship full of convicts who are about to be let out of prison. For a man who's spent a lot of time behind bars, adjusting to life on another planet couldn't be any harder than adjusting to life on the streets.

I recently got out of prison. I had spent 15 years in a cell.

Every day on Planet Prison, you get up at the 6 a.m. buzzer. You have breakfast at 7 a.m. Then you go to work at a job that generally neither requires, nor teaches, any skill and pays a maximum of $3 a day. You eat lunch at noon. You go back to work at 1 p.m. You return to your cell for evening count. Then you eat supper, watch TV, or have time to get into whatever trouble the environment offers. Finally, you enter lockdown until the regimen starts all over again the following day.

Week in, week out, month after month, year after year, time runs together into one shade of gray. It just becomes one giant, unchanging series of events. This goes on for years. Life just crawls along, limping in circles, like a crippled cockroach. The only thing interrupting that life is the occasional period of quick-time terror or rage.

When it comes time for him to hit the streets again, every convict is absolutely sure he is prepared. But you are completely unprepared. Parole or release throws you back into the maelstrom of life on Planet Earth.

If you're very, very lucky, you have family members to help you make the transition to life on your new/old planet. But most prisoners aren't that lucky, since Planet Prison destroys family ties through death, divorce, or simple attrition.

When you walk out of those prison walls and look around, you find that the world is moving so fast. Suddenly, you're dropped into a world of buzzing cars, frantic people, computers jumping along at a mind-bending speed of millions of bytes per second. You may be grinning like a madman, high on the feeling of looking at the fence from the other side. But reality is about to punch you right between the eyes.

The reality of Planet Earth hits full force the minute you get on the highway--it can be just the regular street, not even the interstate. Speed. Colors. Noise. All blending together in a kaleidoscope of sensory overload. Then it hits you, something you never anticipated: fear. Not abject terror--Planet Prison at least managed to teach you to keep that in check--but a nibbling fear deep in your guts. The realization that you're on an alien world is beginning to dawn.

The questions begin: How will I get to work? How will I get my paychecks cashed? Will people know I'm on parole? Will the police come by and check on me at my residence? Will the parole officer come by? Will the neighbors find out and ostracize me? The feelings of joy and fear are now nearly balanced.

You pull out your parole certificate and read the instructions: Report to the parole officer within 72 hours. Register as a parolee with Metro right away. These two instructions stand out like caution lights. If you don't get these done, you are going to get nailed and will be all fried up. But since you can't drive, somebody has to pick you up to take you where you want to go.

And reporting to your parole officer, or registering as a parolee, involves going downtown. Traffic, people, the madness of a normal city day--it's worse than the madness behind the old walls, even at its worst. At least, behind the walls, there was time to adapt to that madness. There's no time to adapt to this.

Most convicts are not familiar with taking city buses, but they have to conquer this new sort of frustration and fear. Otherwise, they will have to get a ride with someone, but that's going to be unlikely because, if they've been in prison for 15 years, they aren't going to know anyone.

Meanwhile, all you've got in your hand is the $30 in parole money they gave you when you left prison. At least you've got some of it left. Every released prisoner gets the same amount. Then there's always the money you've been smart enough to save over the years through your prison job. It could be as much as a couple hundred dollars. You've been promised that, after a week to 10 days, you'll get a check in the mail. Right. Planet Earth moves quickly, but the Department of Corrections accounting office still tick-tocks along on Planet Prison time. And you need that money now.

Thirty dollars seems like a small fortune to someone who's been making that much for a month's work. But out on Planet Earth, you soon find that it's a mere pittance. A Big Mac, fries, a Coke, and a pack of smokes. You do this several times, and you're stunningly broke.

No matter. You're free...sort of. You stand there breathing the air that, for some reason, actually smells different, a wild feeling of joy running through you like a cold drink of ice water on a broiling summer day. But there's a problem. There always is.

When you get out, you are virtually a non-person, with none of the required identification--no driver's license, no Social Security card, no birth certificate. Nobody knows who you are. You have nothing to show anyone. Planet Earth requires at least two forms of identification if you're going to get by. But the thing is, you have to present two forms of identification to get either a driver's license or a Social Security card. Without identification, you can't get identification. It's a Catch-22, and you are tossed like a wild card into the high-speed, high-stakes poker game of life on parole on Planet Earth. It hasn't dawned on you yet how you're going to get a check cashed without identification.

I ended up having to get my birth certificate from South Carolina so that I could take it to Social Security to get a Social Security card so that, in turn, I could use both of those documents to get the driver's license. Once again, I became a person. It took six weeks to get it done.

This is what the Department of Corrections has supposedly spent 15 years preparing you for, but it's almost as though the system were set up to ensure failure. If you're one of the lucky ones, you've got someone, an angel of mercy as it were, who has stood by you and is now helping you out as she is able.

I am one of those lucky ones. I am a little more mature than I was when I entered prison. And I am determined that I am not going back.

But many parolees have nothing, no one, just $30 and big ideas. They are soon dashed against the hard walls of this new Planet Reality. They're going back, back to Planet Prison, back to the world they've been trained for years to live in, the only world in which they know how to survive. The rules there are solid and unchanging, unlike the rules of this new planet they've landed on.

There are some small support organizations, such as Dismas House, set up to help people when they get out of prison, but those organizations are limited in space and are generally unavailable to the majority of parolees. Other than those few options, there's nothing. You just hit the street, hope you land on your feet, and pray you can blend in with the rush of life for which you're so unprepared.

This story shouldn't concern you, the average reader, except that you're paying for it. It costs as much as $50,000 a year to support each of Tennessee's 15,000 or so convicts. For that kind of money, you should be able to expect the Department of Corrections to live up to its name. If recidivism rates of over 50 percent are any indication, it hasn't succeeded. What we need is a correctional system designed to teach society's miscreants how to live on earth, not on Planet Prison. How to live in normal earth society in the high-speed, bill-paying, tax-paying world. With a budget of over $300 million a year, the Department of Corrections should be providing taxpayers with a serviceable product, one that works.

The corrections pendulum has swung back and forth from rehabilitation to retribution with stunning irregularity for years. So far, rehabilitation, as applied in the past, has worked only slightly better than retribution. But attempts at any real rehabilitation have previously been mere slap-and-tickle affairs, mostly paper programs designed for political purposes and to justify the salaries of ersatz teachers hired to rehabilitate prisoners. For your tax dollars, you ought to demand more.

Otherwise, we will continue on the present path and wait for the Martians to land among us. But our aliens are coming from a prison in West Nashville, not from Mars.

One more thing. The money from my inmate trust fund--the money that was supposed to come in the mail in a week or 10 days?

It took over a month to arrive. At least by then, I'd managed to get the identification necessary to cash the check.

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