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Beyond the Prison Walls: A Journey of Reentry, Resilience, and Systemic Barriers

April 17, 2024

Authored by John Fabricius, Senior Engagement & Legislative Campaigner

On August 9, 2018, I stepped into the scorching Arizona sun, a free man for the first time in 15 years. My pockets held a meager $250, a small stipend from the state deducted from the 0.35 cents I made hourly in various prison jobs, and about $1,000 from other sources I had managed to save over the years despite – and often in violation of – the prison rules. I walked out in clothing provided by the state, owning nothing except my four legal boxes of paperwork and tennis shoes.

The world I re-entered bore no resemblance to the one I had left; my father passed away when I was 11, my mother in 2005, and my older brother in 2008. Estranged from my sister, I had no family to turn to for support. My two sons were all I had left, but they were young with their own struggles, one living in Alabama and the other at his mom’s house. With no home or family assistance, and a litany of requirements, restrictions, and financial obligations, I faced the daunting task of rebuilding my life from scratch.

The Harsh Reality of Reentry

The first hurdle was securing a place to live. The Arizona Department of Corrections mandates incarcerated individuals secure an address before release that the Community Corrections (Parole dept.) would inspect and approve or deny. The process is fraught with obstacles. First, we access halfway house information in resource books that are often out of date. Secondly, we were required to write the halfway houses to inquire if they had space when we were leaving, if we would qualify for the program, and to initiate the process of securing them as a release address. The prison didn’t allow us to call them nor would they provide us any assistance in contacting them. We were required to send a letter through the US Mail if we didn’t have a friend or family member to contact them. In my experience, about ⅓ to ½ of the halfway houses would ever respond to an inquiry letter and only about ½ to ¼ of the respondents would have an opening or qualifications that could be met.

Life at the Halfway House

I was fortunate to secure a spot at a halfway house in Phoenix called Vivre. It took a couple of months of writing, waiting for responses, and working out the details. The halfway was a far cry from a conducive environment for reentry. They crammed four of us men into a tiny one-bedroom apartment, with two sharing the bedroom and two in the living room. The space was so small that two people couldn't fit in the kitchen simultaneously. Despite the $135-$150 weekly fee, the living conditions were chaotic and overcrowded. On top of this, we were required to attend several weekly meetings and adhere to strict drug testing, programming requirements, no-guest policies, curfews, and other onerous restrictions.

The Employment Struggle

Finding employment was an uphill battle. My driver's license was suspended before my incarceration and I owed the court about $1650.00 for fines and fees. Even if I had a license, I had no vehicle. I had to rely on Phoenix's inadequate public transportation system to get around. I found myself traveling up to two hours each way to reach job interviews. Three interviews in a day was a 6-8 hour ordeal, especially dressed in interview clothing on crowded city buses with the temperature hovering around 105°-110°.

My first job was at a call center, selling refinancing products to veterans. The work felt unethical, and I witnessed the company's exploitative practices firsthand. I eventually quit and found myself at another call center, this time working for a cable company. The long commutes and the company's emphasis on selling customers services they didn’t need instead of providing solutions made this job equally challenging. Making minimum wage in a job that made me feel like I was taking advantage of people and required me to commute 3-4 hours a day took its toll and brought me to the edge several times. Life at the halfway house exacerbated those feelings.

A Tragic Loss and Systemic Failure

During my time at the halfway house, I witnessed the tragic consequences of a system that fails to support reentry. The halfway house was a revolving door of individuals each wrestling with their challenges and systemic barriers. One of my roommates, a Chicano friend of mine from the yard, struggled to find employment due to his medical condition that was untreated in prison. He was left with a bad hip, a significant limp, and the inability to walk or stand for long periods. His physical challenges, reliance on public transportation, the endless mandatory meetings from the program he was enrolled in, and the halfway house, often scheduled during or so close to regular work hours, made it virtually impossible for him to get a job and successfully fulfill the program’s requirements. Despite his best efforts, he couldn’t find a job and wasn’t earning any money. He was kicked out of the halfway house for his inability to pay rent.

In a heart-wrenching turn of events, he left the halfway house, got on a bus to go to his brother’s house in West Phoenix, and was brutally murdered walking down an alleyway near his brother’s home. He was jumped and beaten by a gang. The halfway house refused to release his belongings to his grieving brother without a written statement from his now-deceased brother. This was a poignant example of the callousness and bureaucracy that plague the reentry process. His eviction and tragic death at the hands of street violence highlighted the harsh realities we face upon release — a lack of compassion, support, and understanding from the very systems meant to guide our reentry.

Perseverance and Personal Growth

I was determined to break free from the cycle of dead-end jobs and limited opportunities. I enrolled in a program that allowed me to unsuspend my driver's license. This opened up new possibilities, and a chance conversation with a Lyft driver introduced me to a program that allowed me to secure a vehicle and earn a living with flexibility. This flexible opportunity gave me the stability I needed to focus on my personal growth. Amidst this chaos of the halfway house, I completed the last four classes I needed to earn my college degree. I took my college classes on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, and I drove Lyft the rest of the week. This opportunity marked a turning point, enabling me to finish my degree and eventually transition to a more stable and fulfilling employment. Moreover, I was able to afford to move into an apartment with another friend of mine from prison who had been released a couple of years before me. I moved out of the halfway house in January 2019 after seven months.

In 2007, I along with several hundred other incarcerated men, were sent to a private prison in Indiana. A person I worked for at that facility found me on Facebook while I was at the halfway house and inquired how I was doing with my reentry. During our conversation, I learned that they had a friend who worked at an IT company here in Phoenix. I had a long history of working on computers and had taught myself how to program while I was inside. I made a connection with her friend and was able to get a job at the IT company. I began working at Service Desk in May of 2019, assisting people worldwide to fix problems with their computers. I loved this job and was promoted to supervisor within 18 months. I remained at this job until April 2022 when I was hired at Dream.Org as the Digital Campaigner for the Justice program.

The Systemic Barriers to Successful Reentry

While my story ultimately culminated in success, it is a stark exception to the norm. The vast majority of individuals reentering society after incarceration face insurmountable barriers. The lack of accessible support services, affordable housing, reliable transportation, and pathways to meaningful employment perpetuates a vicious cycle of recidivism. The system is designed to punish rather than rehabilitate, and the consequences are devastating. During my seven months at the halfway house, I witnessed countless individuals come and go, with only two of us managing to break free from the cycle of failure.

A Call for Systemic Change

My journey has taught me that successful reentry requires more than just personal responsibility and resilience. It demands systemic change and a collective effort to dismantle the barriers that keep the formerly incarcerated trapped in a cycle of poverty and despair. Organizations like Dream.Org play a vital role in advocating for the rights and needs of this marginalized population, working tirelessly to create opportunities and break down the walls of injustice.

As I share my story, I am acutely aware that my success is an exception in a system that sets the odds firmly against the formerly incarcerated. I hope that by shedding light on the harsh realities of reentry and the systemic barriers that perpetuate the cycle of recidivism, we can spark a conversation and ignite a movement for change. Together, we must work towards a future where reentry is not an insurmountable obstacle, but a path to redemption, healing, and hope. It is time to break down the walls that keep the formerly incarcerated trapped in a cycle of failure and build a society that truly believes in second chances.

The future starts with a dream.
The future starts with us.
Black woman standing in front of protestors.