There are many things we could say about the prison system, but there's enough content there for an entirely separate article. Suffice it to say that former inmates have a hard time adjusting to the outside world, especially after being imprisoned for long stretches and dealing with the different pace and rules of life on the inside. Thankfully, organizations like Prison Fellowship exist to help former inmates make the transition successfully. (They even have a handy dandy list of different things you can do to help your loved one once they're released.) It pays to listen to those with intimate experience with the penal system––that's how effective reform happens!
After Redditor RedditR_Us asked the online community, "People who did a long time in prison, what was your biggest shock of the outside world?" we heard some fascinating and enlightening stories.
"It's an anxious panic..."
You forget about the details of things. Like the way carpet feels on the bottoms of your feet. What it feels like to shower completely alone and without flip flops on. In prison you have a certain number of smells that you're exposed to every day, think of them as the first page in a book. But when you get out you have the rest of the book available. It's a lot to take in all at once. With social media and everything, there's the acknowledgement of the passage of time. When I got locked up I left a lot of friends and family behind and did 3 years on my own, no visitors, no calls, no mail. When I got out it was a trip to get on Facebook and Instagram and see how everyone I was ever close to had moved on with their lives, having kids, getting married, getting fat, losing weight, starting and quitting jobs, falling out with each other, some even passing away. People think about a prisoner doing time but don't understand that the time does them. You are frozen in it. While you're stuck in a constant loop of the same day every day, the rest of the world moves on without you. When you get home, you feel left behind. It's an anxious panic to catch up after that.
"My biggest shock was finding out..."
I did 6 years. My biggest shock was finding out you can't do much of anything without a smartphone. Companies don't even do paper applications anymore.
"He told me the inmates..."
My father was a councilor in a state prison for 12+ years. He told me the inmates would often talk about wanting to feel their body submerged in water. Taking a bath, swim, etc. There are only showers so that feeling up being weightless, floating, submerged was something these men would fantasize about.
"The day I got out..."
I did 4 years. The day I got out my uncle took me to Walmart to get everything I needed. I went off by myself to get the things on my list. First I went to the lotion aisle. I was looking at all the lotion & became so overwhelmed by all the choices, dry skin, healing, scented, etc. In there I had no choices & was given what I needed. Having all these options overwhelmed me. I gave my list to my uncle to get it for me. It was really hard to go out in public for a while.
The first night I tried sleeping in a dark bedroom like I did before prison, but couldn't do it. My dad slept on the living room couch with a TV on, so I slept on the other couch. I needed to sleep around people & noise for a while until I got used to being alone again.
I was surprised, because one of the things I missed the most was sleeping in a dark, quiet room, alone in a comfortable bed. For a long time I slept with my arm or a pillow over my head because of noise & bugs.
"When I got out..."
Spent 6 years behind bars. When I got out the biggest shock was the beautiful sights and colors. I forgot how gorgeous nature was, it put the thought into my mind that I never want to go back, because there is no beauty in prison, the beauty is on the outside. I'm glad I'm out now, and every day still take in the amazing outside world for what it is.
"The most notable shock..."
I interned at a private criminal defense firm. The most notable shock of any of our released clients had to be one man who in prison for 16 years (odd amount because he was paroled as part of plea deal). He had a daughter who was just a child at the time he was incarcerated, and when he got out, she had just had a baby, his first grandchild. She didn't tell him about the pregnancy beforehand, she wanted it to be a surprise upon his release. I wasn't there when our old client met his newest family member or his now-adult daughter, but when he came in a few months later, he still couldn't talk about the new baby without crying happy tears. He had a picture in his wallet of his daughter when she was little he brought with him to prison, and showed us the new picture of his grandchild he keeps with it now.
"I lived in a small railroad town..."
5 years for aggravated assault & robbery. I was 3 months past my 18th birthday when I was sentenced. I lived in a small railroad town in South Central PA. I guess one of the biggest shocks for me was how much the town had changed. The scrub land where we rode our bikes and dirt bikes is now a strip mall. My friend's driveway is now the main road through that part of town. Someone fixed up the old dive bar and turned it into a fairly popular restaurant and bar. Hell, whole developments popped up all over the place! And while I wouldn't exactly call the changes "gentrification," the town certainly has improved as far as standards of living, without ridiculously increasing the cost of living.
Shock number two was internet access. AOL, NetZero, EarthLink, etc, were the go-tos then, but phased out within a couple years of my release as faster access from cable companies became more widely available and affordable.
"It's really distressing..."
I occasionally work with people who've just gotten out of jail or prison, and if it's a longer stay a weird thing I've noticed is how often they are enamored of things like Spotify. Like once a guy had just gotten out after ten years and the first thing he wanted to do was get Spotify set up. He tried to connect through Facebook but couldn't remember his password.. In all though, people getting out of jail are doing so much work to catch up. It's really distressing how little societal support there is if you don't have family to take you in.
"That's how it felt..."
I spent roughly 9 years in total at a maximum security prison for some dumb decisions I made as a juvenile.
Self checkout stands at stores and wireless headphones were definitely one of those, this can't be real moments. I questioned reality. Like when you cannot explain an instance and it scares you trying to cope with, did that really happen? That's how it felt.
"One of the hardest things..."
I was in for Robbery 2: Mandatory Minimum of 5 years, 10 months.
One of the hardest things for me once I got out was making choices.
Let me explain; in prison, you might have a two choices for shampoo if you're lucky. The first time I went shopping for hygiene essentials was at Target. I remember being so overwhelmed by the amount of choices for shampoo and having no idea which one to get. I stood in that aisle and cried for a few minutes before I just left without getting anything.
"Getting out after going in as a 21 year old..."
The most shocking... hmmm. I wouldn't say anything was particularly shocking besides the entire experience. Altogether between county jails awaiting trial, sentencing and then my con-air flight to a detention center at the Oklahoma City airport then to federal prison, then a halfway house.. I was locked up for about 67 months total.
Going from jail (never outside) to federal prison was amazing... I would say, the colors and being in physical form outside in nature was shocking in a way, but a way that kept me plugging along on bettering and becoming in my confines.
Getting out after going in as a 21 year old, and 27 when I was released was shocking. Like major social anxiety (and I'd say clinically socially retarded). The whole deal quite traumatic.
Now nearly 17 years later the whole experience was shocking and even more so because I realize I was a prisoner of the War on Drugs. After seeing this question, I wonder why you ask?
"It takes time to adjust..."
When you're locked up everything is done for you. You're told when you can sleep, when you have to wake up. You're told when you can shower, when meals are, and what those meals are. You're given a short list of things you can buy, if you have the money, and you're told when you can buy them. You're told when you can work out, when you have to be here, and when you have to be there. Put your clothes in the laundry bag and they'll be washed on certain days. There's no freedom, but there is structure. Everything is done for you.
When you get out it's the opposite. You can sleep whenever, eat whenever, shower whenever, go wherever. For years every aspect of your life has been controlled. Then suddenly nothing. It's scary, and it's hard to adjust, especially if you don't have a safety net to fall back on. You're given $75 upon release, sometimes in the form of a check you can't cash because no ID. You're expected to immediately fall back into society after being separated for years, and in a lot of cases it just doesn't work. After all of this structure is taken away you're expected to find a job, find a place to stay, and get back on your feet. It takes time to adjust, and the longer it takes the more likely you are to end up right back in prison.
Super late to this, but I'll share for my brother. He was in for just over 7 years, and got released about 2 weeks before covid lockdown. He had to spend 6 weeks in a halfway house, so he ended up being locked in the halfway house for the last 4 weeks as they weren't allowed to go anywhere other than work. He's finally out of there and got himself an apartment.
For him, the way we use social media was mind blowing. He had FB before, but he says that it seems like it's just a way to share other people's thoughts, and nothing is original. Then he started sharing those "I bet no one will share this" propaganda posts. We had to have a chat about how most of that was just garbage and he didn't need to waste his time with it. Also, food choices. He was the cook in his prison and is delighted with the amount of seasonings he can use whenever he wants now.
"Everyone is in a rush..."
Mine was just how life moves on. Everyone is in a rush to get somewhere. Everyone is caught up in their own little bubbles.
"You just don't realize..."
5.25 years served:
You just don't realize how monochromatic penal institutions are. Everything is painted in a narrow palette of muted colors. The rich green grass in the yard was the only vibrant object within sight.
When entering the neighboring Wal-Mart immediately after my release I was overwhelmed by the onslaught of colors! Everything was in-your-face loud; it was retinal overload.
"I feel people think..."
The disrespect to one another in general. I feel people think there's no consequences for being disrespectful in society.
"I still can't get my head around selfies..."
Social media, and some technology. I still can't get my head around selfies and people taking photos of their food as well as pretending your somehow affiliated by celebs by following them or buying their branded items. Still no flying cars that's the only disappointment. Lol.
"The biggest thing..."
I did 4 out of 6 when I was 19. Had never been arrested before. The biggest thing is women. I remember some arm pit looking guards that I could have sworn looked like Angelina; nope. Girls when I got back out, like, everyone looked like Kylie Jenner out here basically. And I really enjoyed being alone more than around people, which continues now.
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