Post-Incarceration Syndrome: Adjusting to Reality After Spending 15 Years in Prison

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Photo by Warren Wong on Unsplash

By John Broman08/06/19, for


“You come to prison by yourself, and you leave prison by yourself”

The day you get out of prison, especially after serving almost two decades behind the walls of the most dangerous penitentiaries in the United States, you honestly believe that you’re free; the healing road from all the horrors endured throughout your stay in the belly of the beast is about to begin. But, as you step foot back into society — especially your government reintegration center — you quickly realize that a whole new level of institutional hell awaits.

I was released July 31st, 2017 after serving 15 years behind the walls of four extremely violent federal penitentiaries. This sentence was incurred for a bank robbery I committed at a young age to feed my addiction to heroin.

Assaults, Riots, and “The Hole”

The atrocities experienced and observed while inside are enough to break any man. My body is healed from the eight stab wounds I survived during a riot, and from the multiple assaults received not only from other inmates, but from the officers who were hired to oversee my “rehabilitation.” Physically my legs still work after “laying it down” for three years in administrative segregation (“the hole”).

But I’m still in pain as my brain tries to process the trauma of it all.

“You come to prison by yourself, and you leave prison by yourself,” says Ryan, a convict who just completed almost a decade of his life behind bars. These words of wisdom have been passed down for years from the old heads who have lived it to the young bucks who are just coming into an unforgiving system. But the fact that 95 percent of prisoners with multiple years in segregation come out suffering from some type of psychological disorder undermines the saying. PTSD, severe anxiety, and paranoia of law enforcement are just a few of the friends riding shotgun with you back into society.

There isn’t really a class to prepare you for your release from incarceration. The Bureau of Prisons technically has “pre-release” programs, but these programs mostly consist of returning your linen, giving your DNA, and getting a physical to prove you’re healthy enough to walk out from under the gun towers that have been your babysitters for most of your life. Until the day you walk out of prison, psychologically and physically, it doesn’t seem like it’s really going to happen.

When you walk out those gates, there’s so many things you want to do, places you’ve been dreaming about over the years of isolation; seeing your old house (or new house, for that matter, because you’re unlikely to return to the only place you knew before prison). You want to see your family, finally free after the years of phone calls and visits behind glass. You dream of walking through a park with your shoes off and getting to just…breathe.

Disbelief at Being Out of Prison

After my release from Big Sandy Kentucky, I wanted to eat breakfast with my family. I wanted to see the fountain that welcomes you to downtown Pittsburgh, and I wanted to see my girlfriend for the first time in years, actually hold her in my arms and kiss her (something that will immediately send you to segregation while incarcerated).

“My mother and cousin showed up at the prison when I was released. Luckily, the CO’s that released me let me ride with [my family] to the bus stop an hour away,” says Tim Tyler. Tim was granted clemency from president Obama after 26 years of incarceration.

The bus ride from his prison in Jessup, Georgia to Las Vegas took over three days with multiple stops across the country. “When I got off at my first stop in Savannah, Georgia, Wes Bruer of CNN and NBC took me to the beach. I sat there and stared at the curve of the earth with the sand on my feet. I went swimming, and cried my eyes out. I was just in disbelief I made it out.”

Tim was able to start healing in those few hours at the bus stop in Savannah. He got a chance to see there’s still beauty in this world. When you’re used to nothing but walls, gun towers, and extreme violence, something as simple as this is life changing.

The only problem was that Tim technically had broken the law as soon as he was released. The law states that an assigned inmate must drive you to the bus station. No one else is allowed to ride with you or take you anywhere once you’ve arrived.

“The inmate was fighting with the COs that let me ride with my mother to the bus stop. He didn’t want to let them do it. I didn’t know what to do, I was just lucky I was well known in the prison and they all knew what was happening with me.” Most of us aren’t that lucky.

Finally Free…Sort of

The name of the halfway house that you’re heading to has been decided long before you leave prison. You’re aware of its location, the things you can and can’t have, and the amount of actual time that you’ll be spending in what is still considered Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) custody. Everything else is left for you to discover on your own.

A packet is issued the day you leave, or sometimes a few days ahead of your release. This file contains all the information about the life you’re about to embark upon in your new world.

You receive a bus ticket, along with an itinerary which states the amount of stops and what time you’re expected to report to the halfway house that’s been assigned. If you’re lucky enough to have clothes sent and actually given to you, the unforgettable prison stench almost separates from your body. If you’re like me, released from administrative segregation, a fresh pair of state-issue skinny jeans, white t-shirt, and pair of leftover shoes are provided, and 50 dollars. This is the cash payment for the debt paid with your entire youth, and this will be the very first trip taken without the luxury of shackles and handcuffs for the better part of your life.

Soul Murder

Soul murder is a term that Dr. James Gilligan, professor of psychology and law at NYU, uses to describe long-term incarceration. This “destroying of someone’s personality, the sense of their own aliveness,” is a condition most of the 2.3 million people in prison will bring with them after their release as they attempt to reintegrate back into some semblance of a normal life.

But what all the previously incarcerated will find out is exactly how hard it will be to get those few hours towards your healing journey.

“The day I got out of the penitentiary was like a dream,” Ryan said. “My family picked me up outside the prison in Virginia and I had three days to get back to Chicago for my probation. That was the best three days of my life after ten years in that hell hole.” Ryan had fulfilled his entire sentence and wasn’t going to a halfway house. He was no longer in the custody of the BOP.

Unlike Ryan, the day I was released was more like a nightmare. The moment I was dropped off at the bus station in the middle of nowhere, I was greeted with the best and worst sight I could possibly see: my family.

I was in sheer horror as they introduced themselves to the inmate driver who is 100 percent going to tell as soon as he gets back that your family was there at the station to meet you. Whether you get on the bus or not, you’re guilty. Just ask the formerly incarcerated rapper T.I. who was sent back to his prison after getting his own bus to meet him.

I gave my family hugs and bummed a cigarette from my father. Leaning back against the hood of my mother’s car, I lit up the most bittersweet cigarette of my life. I’d quit smoking for years on the inside but I needed something to simmer down the level of stress I felt at that exact moment. It was the first time I realized the obstacles that came with readjusting to civilization.

We went to the local IHOP where I sat down at a table for the first time in 15 years. Just looking at the menu and knowing I could order anything was completely mind bending. The feeling of having a real plate, real cup, real silverware after 15 years of sporks and plastic trays was insane. All the people around me, the fast movements — it became overwhelming. I kept scanning the room for trouble, all the while processing the fact that I was not going back to segregation after this, I wasn’t even going back to the penitentiary. This was my first “normal” life experience.

While absorbing the whole life change around me, I’m also seeing a smartphone for the first time. I saw Facebook, YouTube, and texting for the first time, and truly saw how far life had gone ahead while I was buried deep inside the prison system.

Instead of waiting for the bus in banjo country, which would then whisk me away to the ghetto of every major city between podunk Kentucky and the city that held so many beautifully heartbreaking memories, Pittsburgh PA, I rode with my family. Luckily, the inmate who drove me didn’t end up telling on me.

Post-Incarcaration Syndrome

Life inside the penitentiary is extremely hard. The violence and deprivation warp your whole view about having any hope in humanity. You see the total disregard for basic human life firsthand. The years spent literally staring at walls teach you to detach yourself from all the horrors, and you shut out “life on the street” as a survival mechanism. You dream of walking with your shoes off on the beach and listening to the ocean. You envision a meal that doesn’t include someone getting beaten to a pulp while shoveling down whatever garbage given that day. But no matter how difficult and degrading the 15 years was that I spent just trying to survive multiple warzones, the after-effects are the most lasting.

Post-Incarceration Syndrome (PICS) is a mental condition that affects people who have recently been released from prison, and the longer someone is incarcerated, the worse it becomes. Institutionalized personality traits, social sensory deprivation syndrome, and reactive substance use disorders are just a few of the main symptoms of what a returning convict will suffer. Just riding a bus or subway can cause panic. Flashbacks of being herded across the country in chains then released into a new warzone with absolutely nothing race through your mind. The simple act of walking into a grocery store or shopping mall can be so overwhelming you immediately need to leave.

I struggle greatly with the demons and horrors I experienced while incarcerated. I drink before going out in public to numb the hypervigilance that never leaves me. The fear of going back is crippling. Simple things like having a smart phone, contact with a convicted felon (which is basically everyone you know at this point in your life) on Facebook, or not making it on time for work can end your healing journey before it even begins.

About 650,000 men and woman are released from incarceration each year with some form of PTSD. The U.S. represents 4.4 percent of the world’s population yet houses around 22 percent of the world’s prisoners, according to U.S. Bureau of Justice statistics. Nationwide, 45 percent of admissions to state prisons are the result of probation or parole violations at a cost of $9.3 billion each year. Close to a third of that, $2.8 billion, is spent reincarcerating people for technical violations.

Those technical violations include offenses like going to the ocean for the first time in 26 years, or enjoying a family breakfast after almost two decades behind bars.