This is my second week out of the joint and everything is harder than I expected because it seems like all of the natural obstacles are being made that much harder because of all of the man-made one.
When I got released from the Oregon State Penitentiary I had $25 and a bus ticket to Portland in the form of a voucher; my little box of keepsakes and mementos from my life in the penitentiary. I was released at 7:30 in the morning in a driving rain and a quarter of a mile visibility. That was a harbinger of things to come. My Christian support team was there to meet me. Luckily.
We went to a Denny’s for breakfast. My first meal as a free man was pancakes, eggs, and bacon. I ate like I’d been fasting for the past 7 1/2 years. The food was delicious.
It was Halloween and everyone was in costume and in a festive mood. I felt out of place, like I didn’t belong or fit in.
We ate and left. I had to be at my PO’s at 2 sharp and it was already 9 AM. We stopped at a Goodwill to get me a jacket, a beanie, and some socks, underwear and t-shirts. Prison Fellowship had already packed me a duffle bag full of hygiene–soap, toothpaste, mouthwash, shampoo, body wash, and other items I would need in the days and weeks ahead.
We hit the road again. As we drove I looked out at the landscape of a state I had not seen in 7 1/2 years. So much had changed. I felt like a stranger in a strange land.
We got to Portland around 11 AM. We had a stop out in Beaverton at a Goodwill where I bought another pair of shoes, a cap and another sweater. We went to a Subway to eat and I couldn’t believe the aromas and the odors I was experiencing. The different varieties of sandwiches, the courtesy and the niceness of their servers caught me off guard. I wasn’t ready for it.
Next up was my parole intake that consisted of meeting my initial parole officer who went over where I would be staying, the conditions of my parole, and my immediate responsibility of registering with the Portland Police Department. She gave me two bus tickets and told me who my Parole Officer would be going forward and when I would have to meet him.
I then spoke with the P.O. in charge of transitional housing who told me I would be staying for 3 months at The Shoreline on Burnside that is owned and operated by Central City Concern. She then gave me a care package: 2 soups, some crackers, and a few more hygiene items.
Next I talked with my Mental Health Specialist. In prison I had been diagnosed and treated for PTSD, the result of being born in to a combat zone to a dysfunctional family, and over 40 years of incarceration. Sad.
When I left the Mead Building I had a 3 months lease in a room in the middle of hell, 2 soups, some crackers, some hygiene, and 2 bus passes. That was all I had besides my Christian faith and Christian friends.
My friends dropped me off at the Shoreline. You have no way of knowing what it’s like to live in hell unless you’ve lived there. When you step on the curb the first thing that hits you is the stench of decay. Death is all around you, in all directions.
The Shoreline is a transitional shelter for ex-convicts recently release from incarceration and who remain on some form of supervision, be it parole, probation, or post-prison supervision. It’s mission originally was to provide shelter and other resources that could be a bridge to a successful reintegration back in to society for those willing to put forth the effort. That’s no longer the case. All they provide now is the shelter. Everything else must come from the individual.
Every day is a struggle. Everything I’ve experienced since I arrived here has convinced me that it’s a program for failure and nothing more than an expeditious route back to prison. It promotes recidivism. It fosters hostility and breeds contempt for the system from the people they’re supposedly trying to help. The saying that “The road to hell is paved with good intentions” is an apt one I would use to describe my Christian family and support team with the exception of a couple who have dealt with the issues of integration for other ex-prisoners first hand and have developed an empathy that supersedes understanding for the complex set of problems that confront an ex-offender.
It starts at Jump Street. Day One. Identification, location, transportation, clothes, medical care, mental health, employment, money. It’s expensive heavy lifting and hands-on and, although many are willing, not all are able because where the rubber meets the road is when it’s time to activate the Faith one proposes to have by actions that demonstrate it. I’ve received a lot of prayer and well wishes from my support team, and in certain cases, a lot of tangible help that was much need when it came, but most of the time all I feel is frustration because they just don’t get it, or maybe they do, and are afraid to do anything that would make a real difference in the lives of the people they say they are trying to help.
One day, one of my team members gave me $12 for bus fares to look for work. It felt awkward. I could sense that although he was making a physical act of giving me money, he was not giving with his heart and, therefore, may as well not have given me anything at all. I felt like I had pulled a robbery.
They say that they do not give money because they do not want to “enable” a person to return to criminality. That’s the thought process.
First things first. A Christian relationship not founded on trust and love is doomed anyway. They should want to “enable”–that should be the focus. To encourage responsibility and accountability, to own one’s own choices and decisions. That inspires someone to do what he/she needs to do to get the most out of what he does.
The same failure is built in to the system. First, giving an alcoholic a drink is not a therapy or recovery program. It won’t work. The same thing applies to an addict, be it to drugs, sex, or a lifestyle. You can’t cure the affliction with the affliction. This is not the flu.
The Shoreline sits next door to the Union Gospel Mission of West Burnside. It’s the first block on crack alley. Infested with drugs, crimes, prostitution, and every other vice, the area is a magnet for those who look to turn a 5 in to a 10, or a nice looking girl in to a professional hooker. That’s the life. Most convicts who are released from State Prison has to face these mean streets each and every day because they live here. It’s another world.
My first day at the Shoreline my Case Manager shoved some papers in my face and said, “Sign them.” It was a contract to abide by their policies of no drugs or alcohol in the building, no guests, no overnight leaves. You must be in and accounted for by 10 PM unless your Parole Officer says earlier. You have to consent to random drug screens and to take care of your room.
I was given a room, a bed roll, and told that I had to register with the Central City WorkForce on Monday and Transition Projects as well. That was it. No “good luck” and no pat on the back. No display of well-wishing or empathetic understanding of the long bumpy road ahead.
There’s nothing positive I can say about the process. I know there’s no perfect or ideal approach, and no matter what, in the end, it’s up to the individual.
The road to success is paved through blood, sweat, and tears. Sacrifice, self-disciple, and a willingness (read: desire) to see it through. Still, no man is an island. Someone has to be willing to provide the tools. Otherwise the house won’t get built.
Coming from where I began, I’ve seen both sides: the good, and the bad and I’ve experienced both sides. And I can still smile sometimes... because after spending what seems like an eternity in hell, I’m still human. I still laugh at a funny joke.