The Part of Prison We Aren't Talking About

06/24/2015 05:52 pm ET | Updated Jun 24, 2016

Sherane remains a stranger to the outside world.

When she was first released from juvenile hall, at nine years old, her mother never came to pick her up. In fact, she fell out of Sherane's life altogether. Without what the state deemed a proper guardian, Sherane and her siblings were placed in foster care. Facing abuse, Sherane ran away at fourteen, was promptly picked up by the cops, and locked up for another year -- starting a lifelong pattern of release and return.

Incarcerated twice before what would have been her quinceañera, Sherane grew up behind bars... learned about herself behind bars. How can she now, two decades later, adapt to life outside bars?

From fifteen to twenty, Sherane described her life as, well, "nice." She got pregnant with her first child at seventeen, a baby girl; her first son was born two years later. At 22, Sherane moved to Florida to help her increasingly sick aunt. There, she fell in with a bad crowd. Sherane gave birth to her second son in a Florida state prison. Following her release, seven years later, Sherane ended up in New York under the control of the Dutchess County Office of Probation. At this point, prison was normal life; the outside world, alien.

She never told me why she ended up under the control of the D.C.O.P. -- nevertheless, we sat opposite each other in Exodus Transitional Communities, a prison reentry organization, as I listened to her whirlwind of a life story.

Run by and for the formerly incarcerated, Exodus offers more than just social services. "Everybody treats each other just like family. It's like an open arms policy." At Exodus, no one is disposable. Everyone is vital to creating community. Such unyielding acceptance flies in the face of what prison taught Sherane; the internalized lie that she's on her own. This sense of community has the powerful effect of inducing transformation. Slow change that is built off a solid foundation.

Normally, I get frustrated and I don't have nobody to talk to and I just say, I'm 'bout to cop a pack and I don't need a job. I don't need help. I got this on my own. Being here, if they even think you're a little stressed out, about anything, they stop. They help you work through it. You know, that's what I need once I get in that mind frame: I don't care about parole. I don't care about nun' a that.

But this is the longest I've ever completed. I've only been on parole three months, so that sounds crazy, but I never stayed. Normally within a week I'm... I'd just leave. But they've really embraced me; they've worked with me. Everybody that works here is great to me.

The logic of punishment doesn't work when Sherane's frustrated and angry. Her impulse is to give up. And that's where agencies like Exodus come in. They are crucial, demonstrating it is actually possible to break the cycle of imprisonment and release ad infinitum. Sherane can pull it together; they show her how. Because unlike the department of social services or a job interview -- where Sherane is labeled a criminal before anything else -- Exodus is an unconditionally supportive space. Without this support, prison is a revolving door.

With the help of Exodus staffers, Sherane found and then paid for her birth certificate (so she can access food stamps and EBT cash assistance), gained the necessary contacts to get a job (and off the streets), and is currently navigating an intimidating court system to retain custody of her children.

Exodus is, unfortunately, a minority in the reentry industry. For example, when she was released from prison in Florida, Sherane was placed in a three-quarter house:

It wasn't nothing like this [Exodus]. I mean they mandated you to have a job and all that, but they didn't help you. They just sent you out like this is what you have to do. They weren't hands on -- on the phone calling people -- they didn't help you with any of that... I violated probation out there, ended up going back to prison.

Today, with healthy options at her disposal, Sherane is making it how she can. Recently she started working at a GAP Warehouse; a job she landed through a contact made at Exodus. Now she can present the family court judge with employment papers, and eventually she'll have an apartment. So, for now, it's slow steps. Getting a job, an apartment, and then her kids. This requires a radical shift in thinking, which certainly didn't come about in Florida!

"I never thought about stuff like that before... I just cared about getting high, running the streets, and getting money -- now I'm broke, but I'm okay with it. And that's crazy to me (laughs)."

In this era of mass incarceration, 750,000 men, women and children are released from prison and out-of-home placement annually. Many are like Sherane: growing up in prison only to be released into the same life that made crime necessary in the first place. Public discourse on 'rehabilitation' ignores the fact that Sherane, for instance, was never 'habilitated' to begin with! Sociologist Roger Guy remarked that "The whole idea of a 'second chance' is misleading. To the extent that offenders originate from socioeconomic deprivation there was no 'first chance."

Right now, the stats are staggering. One in three black men are projected to spend time in jail or prison; in cities like D.C., that figure is closer to two in three. An unarmed civilian is shot by an officer every 28 hours. These are crisis numbers, and the scary part is that anyone who hasn't been to jail can only guess what it's like from Piper in Orange is the New Black -- which is a total fucking lie.

We are literally walled off from the truth, and Sherane's story is a blueprint for what's needed. Listening to the formerly incarcerated is how we'll break down these walls.