“You don’t gotta GET ready if you STAY ready”.
So a few weeks ago a friend of mine named Riky came over to see me after I got back from work in CI Laundry. Riky was distraught and in need of some brotherly advice. Since we’ve known each other for more than two decades, I was his natural choice. We sat at a table in the dayroom, as close as possible while still observing the arbitrary COVID distancing rules, and had the most poignant conversation I’ve ever had with him. Riky leaned forward on his metal stool, elbows on his knees, and placed his head in his hands. The look on his face was one of trepidation and anguish. Which didn’t make any sense to me, as Ricky had had a telephonic court hearing the day before and won the proverbial legal Lotto, getting more than five and a half years knocked off his sentence due to the State Supreme Court “Blake” decision expunging all felony drug possession convictions and the resultant sentencing grid “points” being removed as well. There were now hundreds, perhaps thousands, of men and women currently in prison who would now have to be resentenced, minus those points, reducing those current sentences. Many of them were now past their newly adjusted release dates and scheduled for immediate release. Riky was one of those. He was ecstatic when I saw him earlier this same morning, giving him the handshake and Bro Hug as I left the unit to go to work.
So as I sat facing him, seeing this expression on his face, waiting for him to say something, I thought maybe the release had been revoked. Or maybe he had a death in the family. My mind was racing and I finally asked him, “Dude’ what’s up?”. Riky pulled his face out of his hands and looked up at me and said, “Man, I ain’t ready for this!”. There were real tears in his eyes to go along with the real emotions he was feeling and all I could think of was to tell him, “Dude, you gotta stay ready so you don’t gotta get ready…” Needless to say, it probably wasn’t the best advice at that particular moment, and Riky scrunched up his brow, visibly irritated at my quip, and responded, “Dude, what the FUCK are you talking about??!!”. Hmmmm. What am I talking about?
Another friend of mine, Herb, was also recently released. Similar circumstances as Ricky, but for an entirely different reason. Herb was serving Life-Without Parole, LWOP, as a Three-Striker. The state legislature recently rescinded the second degree robbery as a strikable offense, and applied retroactively. Once again there were now many, many individuals who, only days before were serving life sentences, were now ordered Immediate Release by a superior court. Wow. I didn’t have the opportunity to see my friend Herb before he got out, but I am sure he was as shocked, stunned, excited, and unprepared as Riky was. Probably even more so. Herb was granted a hearing before the Clemency Board a few years ago and was unanimously denied, in what he referred to as his “Clemency Roast”. He had no realistic hope for sentence reduction, let alone release. Until it happened. Suddenly.
So back to Riky. As we sat there and talked, he explained to me how he hadn’t even planned on THINKING about release for five more years. “Where am I going to go? What am I going to do?”, he asked, looking to me for sage advice and some sort of comfort and assurance that only Big Kyle could give. I went back to my cell and scrounged up whatever release resource material I kept from my time as a peer facilitator in our Release Planning and REACH Skills classes from a couple years ago. Couple years ago? Oh, let me explain…
We have no reentry prep classes in this prison. At one time (a couple years ago), we had DOC Reentry Team staff coming in once a week for a peer-facilitated Release Planning class. We also had our prisoner-created and staff-supported REACH Skills reentry planning class going concurrently with Release Planning. Then COVID. No, sorry…. I have to keep it real. The DOC Reentry Team staff members stopped coming in to this facility MONTHS before any of us had even heard of COVID-19. Don’t ask me why. Ask them. The new Reentry Division the DOC created a few years ago, I’m sure, came with a nice, fat budget appropriation, new offices, new upper management positions with the requisite six-figure salary compensation packages… But how much if that has “trickled” down to the facility level? At this point, nary a damn drop.
Perhaps I am just jaded and cynical after 3+ decades in prison, but I think I can accurately predict what comes next. The inevitable increase in recidivism rates for this Immediate Release cohort will cause the opposition in the state legislature to blame “soft on crime” Democrats. These will he the same state legislators who have systematically opposed and blocked any meaningful sentence reform bills, such as merit-based second chance parole, for the past decade. DOC officials will blame “lack of funding” and whine about the most recent budget cuts to the Department. Meanwhile, lives, families, relationships that could have been saved will be damaged and destroyed, and real human beings will fail, due to the failure of those in supposed leadership positions within this state government bureaucracy. Yes, Reentry planning and preparation is important. Everyone knows it and everyone says it. Why is nothing being DONE?
Both Riky and Herb have joined my JPay contact list and I even got a message from Riky yesterday with a pic attached. He was grinning ear-to-ear, obviously still in his release “honeymoon phase”. We’ll see. I wish for the best for these men, these friends of mine. If they fail, we ALL fail. Fare the well, my brothers.
-Kyle F. Johnson