After 21 continuous years in prison, I was coming home. I didn't know what to expect. I had been serving time since 1993, when at the age of 22, I was locked up for a first time, non-violent offense and sentenced to 304 months. I grew up in prison. It was all I knew for the entirety of my adult life. For survival purposes, I adopted the convict code and prisoner mentality, but it was never me. It was just a façade and image I presented to the denizens in the belly of the beast.
Not everything is perfect but in recovery I have learned that life isn't fair.
I was a white, middle class kid who grew up in the suburbs. I didn't even consider myself a criminal. I sold LSD and marijuana to college students, but for some ungodly reason the Feds jammed me up and sentenced me to more time than my age at the time. Go figure. That was all ancient history now.
In August 2014, I came home. After completing the Bureau of Prison's Residential Drug Abuse Program (RDAP), a 500 hour, 10-month intensive behavioral therapy program that advocates changing your ways of thinking and living, I was released to a halfway house in St. Louis, Missouri. I was very happy to finally be released, as you can probably imagine.
It seems like overkill that I spent 21 years in prison and still am not free; but I will take the halfway house over prison any day. Having resided in the RDAP unit for my last 24 months in prison, I was used to being in a proactive and prosocial environment, where people were trying to change and do the right thing. When I got to the halfway house; I had another thing coming.
I had heard all about halfway houses from lots of prisoners, who had experienced them before they violated the system and went back to prison or caught a new case. It always surprised me how many people went back to prison. But the drug and criminal lifestyles will do it to you every time.
Statistics show that three out of every five released prisoners will recidivate and end up back in prison. The halfway house was full of traps and obstacles that every newly released convict had to overcome. I knew guys who went back to prison for drinking, getting dirty urine tests, having cell phones, and unaccountability- the ways that people returned to prison were endless, it seemed. I listened to their stories, learning what not to do and filing it away for future use.
When I finally got to the halfway house the first thing I noticed was that it was in the ghetto. A lot of halfway houses are and it was just something that I would have to deal with. I knew that once I got a job and started paying them a 25% subsistence fee, I would get more freedoms and eventually be able to earn my way into home confinement.
Home confinement is where you are allowed to live at home, but you are on house arrest. You are allowed to go to work, but your activities and movements are strictly monitored. If you are not where you are supposed to be-- at the time you are supposed to be there-- then you will be sent back to prison. Do not pass go, no excuses, you go directly to jail. Just like in Monopoly.
The second thing I noticed about the halfway house was that a lot of people residing there just saw it as a place to finish their time. Except that it was actually a place where they had more freedom and more access to things they couldn't get in prison. Most of the newly released prisoners were slaves to their vices and immediately upon release resumed smoking cigarettes, smoking K2 and drinking alcohol.
In the halfway house I was in, they had something called, "Tootchie" and it was an epidemic. It seemed everyone was smoking it. Also, everyone had a cell phone. Anything that you weren't supposed to have, the dudes in the halfway house either had or were trying to get. It was off the chain, for real. I went from the RDAP unit where nobody did anything wrong to contraband central.
My first night there I was placed in a dorm. I thought I was still down on the block. People were coming and going all night. It seemed that I had moved into a high traffic drug spot. I was amazed. Residents had TVs, smartphones, cigarettes, K2, alcohol, tablets, and DVD players. I didn't know what was allowed and what wasn't. It seemed like everything was carte blanche and the dudes in the room and others who came and went as they pleased just did what they wanted. I lay in bed thinking, "I just got out of prison after doing 21 years I can deal with this. I am free and I just have to get through this."
I later found out one halfway house resident who was there before me was smoking K2 like crazy and ended up jumping off a bridge. He died and never returned to the halfway house. Another resident had a K2 attack and ran around screaming and yelling, trying to swim, and then did the back stroke on the floor. The halfway house staff called the local sheriff's department and had him locked up. There was definitely a "no tolerance" policy, but guys in the halfway house were getting away with so much.
I made my decision right then and there, that I would do everything I could to get a job and move into a two-man room. Two man rooms were reserved for residents who were gainfully employed. Any job you held had to be approved by the halfway house. They would visit your job and your boss had to call in to get all your hours approved so your case manager could issue a work pass for the times you worked. Everything was controlled, monitored and restricted-- just like prison. But the reins were amazingly loose.
I felt like a horse chomping at the bit. I wanted freedom so bad. I had been locked up so long due to my drug addiction, my self-destructive nature and the federal sentencing guidelines. But during my time in prison, I had changed. I had stopped using drugs and I had grown up. I was ready to be free, to work, and be a responsible, respectful member of society. But others at the halfway house were not of the same inclination.
The halfway house issues every resident job search passes but most dudes don't use them for that purpose. They just want to go out and live life. I can't blame them but I had more important things on my agenda and violating halfway house regulations was not one of them. I didn't want to go back to prison. I was on a mission to succeed. I found a job at an upscale restaurant through a friend who was a food runner. I went to the interview, passed with flying colors and was hired. But then when I told the manager that I was in the halfway house and he needed to call my case manager to give him my hours; he balked and totally changed his tune.
I had heard of the discrimination that ex-convicts face and that was the first time I ever experienced it, but it wouldn't be the last. I was going out on job searches, being breathalyzed every time I came back to the halfway house as well as being drug tested once a week. There was no way I would jeopardize my freedom by taking drugs. I didn't even smoke cigarettes. Everybody at the halfway house was smoking K2, because they don't test for it, but I didn't even consider taking a puff off a joint. I needed to get a job so I could start getting passes to go home, see my wife, and earn my way to home confinement status.
The halfway house was not an easy environment to do the right thing in. When you see everybody else doing wrong, you want to join in. Especially when you have been in prison for so long and been denied the basic pleasures of life but I knew that if I did everything right and stayed on point I could have my cake and eat it, too. I would just have to be patient. But one thing being a drug addict has taught me is that I need to take it one day at a time.
I liked being at the halfway house in comparison to prison. In prison, I was an inmate; in the halfway house, I was a client. It seemed like a vast improvement in my lot in life. Eventually through friends, I got two jobs: one, as a courier for a law firm and another as a line cook in a restaurant. The pay wasn't much, but the jobs got me out of the halfway house. My schedule was such that eventually I was signing out to go to work on one job, returning and then signing out on my second job. The halfway house had a policy that you couldn't work over sixty hours a week so I kept my schedule at around fifty hours a week.
After several weeks of working, I started earning rec passes on the weekend and eventually weekend passes that allowed me to go home to my house and loving wife for the whole weekend. I heard a lot of dudes complain about the weekend passes and the monitoring system the halfway house employs but I have no complaints. I am up for home confinement now and should be put in for it very soon. I am still working my two jobs and with the weekend passes have even had time to start up working on my chosen career again: writing.
It just goes to show, that no matter your environment, no matter the circumstances of your life you can always succeed, if you want to. Where there is a will, there is a way. I have avoided all negative temptations. I have chosen not to hang out and indulge. Just as I did in prison, I have stayed out of the mix. I don't care what is going on at the halfway house because I am hardly ever there now. I am in a two-man room and I go there to sleep, check in, pay my subsistence fee, take drug tests, and get my schedule approved by my case manager.
It is far from the life I was living when I was in the belly of the beast. But the lessons I learned in RDAP are still being applied. I avoid negative peer pressure, I respect authority figures and I show humility. I am grateful for the opportunity that has been given to me. Not everything has gone my way; I wanted to start taking classes to learn Adobe Photoshop and it was denied by the halfway house. I am just being patient and I know that no opportunities are lost, only delayed.
As an RDAP participant, I have to go to drug aftercare to continue on my road to recovery. I go to an individual class for one hour a week with a drug counselor and a group session for an hour and a half. Along with the regular breathalyzers and drug test, I am proving that I should be allowed to remain a part of society. I have seen several dudes go back to prison from the halfway house since I have been there, for various reasons, and I use their situations as examples of what not to do.
Not everything is perfect but in recovery I have learned that life isn't fair. All I can do is take it on the chin, keep my head up and stay positive. I try to keep my life balanced so that I can deal with any situation better. For me, balance and being positive is the key to my continued sobriety and freedom. Despite the distractions at the halfway house, I will succeed. I cannot use that as an excuse to revert to my former lifestyle and indulge in the drug and criminal life, like so many dudes do. I am almost halfway through my halfway house term, I just have to stay focused and continue to do the right thing. And living a drug and crime-free lifestyle by adhering to all the rules and the regulations of the halfway house is the biggest part of that for me right now.
Seth Ferranti has been a regular contributor to The Fix since 2012. This is his first feature since his release from prison. He recently told the story of a fatal gambling addiction. To learn more about prisoners, check out gorillaconvict.com. Gorilla Convict, a compilation of his writing about prison gangs, the mafia, hip-hop and hustling, is now available.