Life after prison can pose its own unique set of challenges. Check out this guide to learn how to get your life together after leaving prison.
At least 95 percent of people incarcerated in state prisons will be released back into the community at some point in their lives, according to the National Reentry Resource Center. And at least 9 million people are released every year.
With education and employment opportunities looking bleak for convicted felons, life after prison can feel overwhelming. Indeed, a three-state recidivism survey between 2001 and 2006 found that less than half of people released from prison had secured a job upon their return.
But you don't have to part of that statistic.
How to Start Your Life After Prison
Just like people who travel abroad can experience "culture shock" when they adjust to an unfamiliar way of life, people returning from prison can experience "reverse culture shock" when they adjust to their newfound freedom — no matter how long their sentence was.
Friends or family might've passed away. New lives might've entered the world. Relationships and home addresses could change, your favorite landmarks could be no more, technology could evolve, and societal norms may shift, if even a little bit.
Here are some ways to overcome that hurdle.
Mind Your Mental Health
While mental health is one of the most important factors in adjusting to life after prison, it's also one of the hardest to take care of. Without mental stability, even the most minuscule tasks can feel unbearable.
Nationwide, more than half of the incarcerated population struggles with mental health issues, and about three-quarters also experience recurring substance abuse disorders, according to the Washington, D.C. Bureau of Justice Statistics.
If therapy or rehabilitation aren't feasible options, there are other ways to work through your challenges. Start by setting a small goal for yourself each day, like applying for a job or scheduling an appointment. Then, reward yourself with something you love, like taking a long walk or eating a meal you enjoy.
Another way to address your mental health is by practicing positive thinking. Instead of beating yourself up over each failure, see it as an opportunity to improve. Surrounding yourself with encouraging people will help you achieve this, especially on the hard days.
Don't Isolate Yourself
You may feel like you're the only one who understands what you're going through, but that's not true. It is okay — and even necessary — to rely on others for emotional support. Don't let pride stand in your way of asking for help; too much time alone can deteriorate your sense of self.
If friends or family aren't willing to be there for you, look for a church, social organization, or volunteer group to get involved in. You don't need someone who's going to agree with everything you do; you just need someone who listens and respects your choices without pressuring you to meet unrealistic standards.
Communicate Your Feelings
You're bound to feel a variety of conflicting emotions, like sadness, frustration, and hopelessness upon your release. And you'll need to talk about them — a lot. But the hard truth is that not everyone wants to hear it. So seek out people who do, and find the best way to keep the dialogue open.
You might also consider writing about your experience. Although difficult, it undeniably played a role in shaping the person you became. The Marshall Project is a great outlet for that. Its weekly newsletter about life on the inside is just one of its initiatives for giving convicted felons a voice in today's media.
It's easy to feel like there's no way to put a positive spin on your incarceration. But writing for an audience can help share your wisdom with people in the same shoes so they don't make the same mistakes. It can also help shed light on overlooked issues in the criminal justice system.
But if you're not comfortable getting that vulnerable, nobody has to read your writing. At least keep a private journal to document your daily or weekly feelings, challenges, and goals. Looking back on it will help you see the progress you're making.
Avoid Impulsive Decisions
It is perfectly normal to feel the need to reinvent yourself after prison. A different hairstyle, a new outfit, or even a fresh tattoo or piercing can help boost your self-confidence on the outside.
But remember not to go overboard with your spending. Budget your money wisely, and make sure your most basic needs are taken care of first: food, water, shelter, and transportation. If you're short on cash, don't panic. There are a number of loans for felons that can help you get back on your feet.
Moreover, the desire for companionship can be especially strong after release. While you should look for patient people who can keep you grounded during this new chapter in your life, try not to rush into any serious relationships or commitments you might later regret.
Pursue a Trade or Higher Education
Many prisons offer in-house educational or vocational programs, like GED courses, food service, and woodworking. If you haven't yet found your strong suit, take a career aptitude test to narrow down your options. Then, look into the educational requirements needed to find a job.
There are a variety of grants and scholarships available for convicted felons to complete their GED or associate degrees. Moreover, technical colleges are a great way to specialize in a specific trade, like cosmetology or mechanics.
If none of these sound appealing to you — or you just don't have the time — you don't have to feel uneducated. Take up a hobby, like a sport or an art, or spend time reading about what interests you. Immerse yourself in an unfamiliar culture or learn a new language. Education isn't limited to the four walls of an institution.
Act with Humility
Because of the stigma associated with convicted felons, a lot of people are going to look down on you or have no faith in you. This is why it's essential to remind yourself that you're more than the mistakes you made.
It can be tempting to slip into old habits, like starting a fight at the first sign of disrespect or falling back in with the wrong crowd. But before you do, ask yourself if it's really worth going back to jail. Chances are, the answer will be no.
Forgive the people who've wronged you, even if they don't apologize. Holding onto that anger will only make it harder for you to move forward with your life. It's okay to keep in touch with the people you met behind bars, too. Looking out for one another is one way to promote accountability and prevent loneliness.
Treat your parole officer with respect. Be humble and keep an open mind to what may've changed while you were gone. Expect rejection, but don't be discouraged by it. There are countless resources dedicated to helping convicted felons find a job.
Establish Good Habits
Goal-setting is just one example of a good habit to form after prison. You could also set a schedule for yourself so no important task goes forgotten. And if you're returning to where you lived before your arrest, cleaning and rearranging your space can help you eliminate the negative reminders of your past.
If you want to practice caregiving, you could adopt a cat or buy a couple of houseplants. These low-maintenance, self-sufficient additions can help an empty house feel less lonely while also giving you some daily responsibilities. Plus, you don't have to worry about them getting bored if you're working long hours.
It's easy to fantasize about life after prison: you'll want to get a job, maybe a new car, find a place to live, and settle down. But milestones like that happen incrementally, not immediately. You can't let this discourage you if you want to be successful.
The most important things to remember are that good things take time, and you are not alone. You won't get what you want right away, but if you are persistent and you accept the help of others, you'll eventually end up where you're meant to be.
And while it may sound cliche, you can't get caught up on the past. You can't change what happened back then, but you are in total control of what happens after. Use that to your advantage and remember to be kind to yourself if it doesn't go according to plan right away.
If you're looking for more hobbies you can take up after your release, be sure to visit our blog at Nouw.