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The Yearning for Redemption
Re-entering society after being incarcerated takes a heavy emotional toll.
For many formerly incarcerated individuals, there’s an all-consuming thirst for redemption, to prove oneself worthy after prison. I’m familiar with this desire.
Growing up impoverished, I was always thirsty for more—more food, more clothes, more opportunities. But when I was incarcerated, that thirst took on a whole new meaning. I craved a second chance, the opportunity to prove that I’m more than my mistakes. But the journey of returning to society can be challenging.
After I was released from prison, I quickly realized how immense the challenges of re-entry are. Finding a job, securing housing, and reestablishing relationships with friends and family were all daunting tasks. I applied for countless jobs, only to be turned away time and time again because of my criminal record. I knew I was capable of doing the work, but employers considered me to be a liability. Being constantly rejected was soul-crushing, and I began to question whether I would ever be able to forge a life after incarceration.
I carried the weight of my mistakes with me everywhere. The guilt I felt for my past actions was almost suffocating at times. I wanted to be seen as a new person, someone who had learned from their mistakes, but no one was willing to give me that chance. The emotional toll of re-entry—proving yourself “good enough” to rejoin larger society—can become overwhelming. “Formerly incarcerated individuals often face stigmatization and discrimination, which can lead to feelings of shame and inadequacy,” says Emily Shelton, a prisoner re-entry expert and the co-founder and director of a nonprofit called Ignite Justice. “These feelings can be compounded by the lack of support and resources available to returning citizens, making it difficult to navigate the challenges of re-entry. This is where and why we see a lot of recidivism as a result.”
The United States has one of the highest recidivism rates globally. An estimated 44% of formerly incarcerated people are re-imprisoned within just 12 months, and a study of prisons in 24 states suggests that as many as 82% of formerly incarcerated people return to prison in 10 years. According to a report by the Prison Policy Initiative, poverty is the single greatest predictor of recidivism. In fact, being unhoused significantly multiplies the chances of previously incarcerated people returning to jails and prisons. Other studies have shown that stable employment, housing, and access to postsecondary education are effective means of curtailing recidivism and addressing criminogenic factors such as poverty and addiction.
Ignite Justice, Shelton’s nonprofit, aims to address this problem. The organization advocates for criminal justice reforms and rehabilitative prison conditions, and also works with incarcerated people both before and after release to facilitate a smooth reintegration. “These folks often learn that it is OK to feel ashamed and vulnerable, or to suffer from past traumas, and that those feelings are a natural part of the healing process and the restoration process,” Shelton says. “Yet it’s important that they don’t embody or long-term identify with that shame or trauma. By confronting past mistakes and taking responsibility for them, these people are able to move forward with a renewed sense of purpose and self-worth.”
Despite the challenges of re-entry, I refused to give up. I knew I was capable of more than what society believed of me. I began to seek out resources that could help me gain the skills and support I needed. I participated in a job training program that not only provided me with practical skills but also gave me a sense of belonging. There is real value in being a part of a community that sees the potential of formerly incarcerated people and sets them up for success.
Nicholas, who is withholding his last name for privacy reasons, found his family’s emotional support to be especially valuable after his release. “Having my family there in spite of my past mistakes remains a huge deal for me,” he says. “To have somewhere I feel safe and supported has made the transition back into society much easier than I think it otherwise might have been.”
I also learned the importance of seeking counseling and therapy. By addressing these arduous psycho-emotional hurdles that are present in societal reintegration, I was able to heal and move forward with a renewed sense of purpose. Nicholas, too, says therapy has helped him “move through my trauma from prison” and become optimistic about the future. “[Therapy] has helped me feel like I can breathe again,” he says. “For someone starting life over, I just cannot stress enough how important those things are.”
My personal journey has taught me that it’s possible to rebuild one’s life after incarceration and to find purpose and fulfillment. But I still worry about the future—not just for myself, but for every person starting over. As a society, we need to work toward creating a world where all individuals have the opportunity to thrive and succeed, regardless of their past mistakes. That includes recognizing and dismantling our collective bias toward formerly incarcerated people in our rhetoric, our hiring practices, and our behaviors. Rather than trapping people in the memory of their worst moment, we should provide tangible support, resources, and opportunities for growth. When we create a society that embraces those who have been incarcerated—restoring and rehabilitating them and returning them to their communities—then formerly incarcerated people will finally have the second chance that they deserve.