“I was 25 years old when I went to prison, and 40 when I was released.”

There’s such a difference between free and freed. I don’t really feel free.
There’s such a difference between free and freed. I don’t really feel free.
Image: Reuters/Stephen Lam
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

This story is part of a series called Craigslist Confessional. Writer Helena Bala has been meeting people via Craigslist and documenting their stories for nearly two years. Each story is written as it was told to her. Bala says that by listening to their stories, she hopes to bear witness to her subjects’ lives, providing them with an outlet, a judgment-free ear, and a sense of catharsis. By sharing them, she hopes to facilitate acceptance and understanding of issues that are seldom publicly discussed, at the risk of fear, stigma, and ostracism. Read more here. Names and locations have been changed to protect her subjects’ anonymity.

Lucas, 41

I was 25 years old when I went to prison, and 40 when I was released.

I am one of five children. I grew up in a rough neighborhood and lived in the projects. My mother was college educated, but her husband got her hooked on drugs. Ever since fourth grade, I’ve been trying to make money, go to school, and feed everyone. I always knew how to fend for myself.

When I got arrested, I was working and going to school full time. I had a four-year-old son. I was a first time, nonviolent offender accused of interfering with a federal investigation. The verdict came back in a heartbeat: a 240-month sentence in a federal prison. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a lifetime.

The first two years were really stressful. I was in denial. It just hadn’t settled in yet that this would be what the next 20 years of my life would look like. I developed high blood pressure and had several stress-related breakdowns. Over the years, I was transferred to seven different federal facilities. Twice, it was for disciplinary reasons. In some places, I was the one who was feared; in others, it was my turn to be afraid.

When I was in Arizona, there were race riots. The Mexicans and the blacks didn’t get along. The guards had absolutely no control over the prisoners. Other than that, prison life is really regimented: lights go out at 10:30 PM, and on at 5:30 AM every morning. Your bed needs to be made perfectly, and they have a little cartoon of what it should look like when you’re done.

You get fed at 6 AM. Then you have work call from 7 AM to 2:30 PM. I got paid 6 cents an hour. Then you get to work out. You shower. You get ready for count at 4 PM and 10 PM. In between, you can watch TV — they have basic cable. There’s a recreational area, arts & crafts room, and a library, too. If you mind your business and behave, life is almost…pleasant.

But if you sleep in and you miss your work detail, they put you in segregation or give you extra duties. If you do anything that’s considered an infraction of prison rules, you get a “shot.” A 100-series shot is a big deal—you would usually get transferred to a higher security prison—and it would go on your record. A 200-series shot is borderline; you get that if you get into a fight with someone. A 300-series shot is not serious; you’d get one for insolence, unauthorized contraband, or being late to work.

The people who make trouble are always the ones who have the shorter sentences. Prisoners with two or three life sentences are humble and respectful, in my experience. They’ve accepted their fates: they’re going to die in prison. For many of them, prison is a better situation than being at home.

My first day out, I was happy and angry at the same time. The Judge took forever to hand down the order of release. I missed my bus and ended up having to wait over twelve hours in a Greyhound station to get home. I kept looking around, wondering if an officer was going to come and take me back.

When I finally got to my home state, a probation officer came and took me clothes shopping at a place called Forman Mills. I got a coat, some jeans, and a pair of slippers. They put me up in a motel for a few days, until I could get back on my feet. I signed with a staffing agency but as you can imagine, I haven’t had much luck.

When you’re in prison for so long, you become accustomed to living without responsibilities. You don’t pay rent or bills, and you’re provided with three meals a day. You pay commissary or whatever debt you may have caused, but that’s it. Also, it’s not as dangerous in prison as it is on the streets—at least, not for a black man.

While I was gone, my father and grandmother died. My son grew up seeing his father behind bars. He’s 20 years old now. He has barely had me in his life. I’m struggling to take care of myself, and I’m really lonely. I had become accustomed to sleeping a certain way, too, so sleep doesn’t come easy anymore. I don’t have a very good support system out here.

I still get out of bed at the same time every morning and eat at the same time. I make up my bed the same way I used to, too. It’s hard to believe that I’m a free man now. But there’s a difference between free and freed. I don’t really feel free.