Throughout Lycoming County, there are many people working hard to reenter the community after a period of incarceration or probation supervision. Lycoming College students stepped out of the classroom recently to interview participants of the Lycoming County Reentry Services Center in an attempt to draw awareness to the challenges of reentry and humanize the specific struggles individuals face, including substance abuse, mental health issues and employment.
The assignment was part of a first-year seminar, Returning Home: What Does It Mean to Desist From Crime, taught by Professor Kerry Richmond, chair of the Department of Criminal Justice-Criminology at the college, who has been involved with reentry efforts in the county since 2015. Through this course, students met with local agencies that work with individuals with criminal records in the community and took part in a reentry simulation to better understand the specific challenges people face. These interviews were the culminating project of the course. Professor Richmond and the students in the course are appreciative of the willingness these individuals took to share their stories and for the Reentry Services Center’s interest in collaborating on this project.
On the PULSE will publish segments from six students’ reports on the reentry participants they interviewed. Today, Lizanahi and Alma feature Bruce who became addicted to drugs after a personal trauma.
Lizanahi and Alma tell Bruce’s story
When thinking about individuals who are released from prison, society places labels on them without knowing the whole truth. The general public often makes assumptions and they do not clearly understand the challenges that individuals face each and every day.
When a person is released after being incarcerated, they face certain obstacles that affect the way their life turns out. Some of these obstacles come with the territory of being incarcerated for a long period of time, but others are due to the actions of society.
These people experience real challenges that other people may not realize are important. Incarceration takes a toll on people in many ways, which is why the GEO reentry programs exist.
Although there are different events that led to Bruce’s crime, the outcome and challenges he has experienced after release are everyday battles that many people have to face upon returning back into their community. Bruce dealt with trauma, which led to the abuse of drugs as a coping mechanism.
“There is a lot of background that goes into it… a ton of people are getting high to mask some sort of pain they may have,” he explained after sharing that he had lost his parents and siblings, all while dealing with his divorce. As humans, we try to find any way possible to manage our feelings and reality, which is often beyond our control, and in many cases drugs may become a way of survival. Bruce used drugs as a way to not feel the agony of his loss and as a way to escape what was going on around him. He explained how “[he] wish[ed] [he] would have stopped and went and talked to somebody, or seen a counselor… because [he] probably wouldn’t be in the situation that [he is in],” which shows in his remorse in the choices he made. Although his drug abuse wasn’t the reason for his crime, which was theft by deception, it was a factor that contributed to the loss of himself and those surrounding him. Bruce spoke about the environment of jail, to which he did not wish to return. An environment can change you and, for Bruce, it helped him recover his old self. While he was dealing with drug abuse and being incarcerated, it didn’t just affect him, but his children. He took advantage of the time in jail to better reflect on himself and to build a bond with his children. The barrier between him and his children and the loss of communication and connection were some of the bigger challenges he had to face. While using, he had lost custody of his daughter and was partially removed from her life. He spoke about how he was able to see the effect being in jail had on his children.
“[When] I went to jail, [my daughter] wrote me a letter saying “Dad, it’s time to stop smoking crack”, and that really hit home for me…I definitely put my best foot forward, and [did] everything that I had to do to keep my sobriety.”
As a father, Bruce had to completely take responsibility for his actions and show his children that he is more than his mistakes. What Bruce was able to do is not something many people are able to accomplish. The impact that his daughter had on him shows the importance of having relationships with people that care for your progress. He gains confidence in a better future from the great amount of support given by his children and he is now able to fully dedicate himself to moving forward in his life. As for Bruce, he is committed to the goal of one day fully gaining their trust and rebuilding what was torn down.
After incarceration, the ability to gain employment is a toll for many people. A little mistake can cause a great impact upon their life. Life before Bruce’s felony was very much stable. After being incarcerated, finding employment was a major difficulty for Bruce. “That one charge basically ruined me for getting my job back that I had with the city,” he said when we asked how his felony has impacted his employment status.
“A lot of employers will look at your criminal history and background and, if you have a felony, which mine was, it was theft by deception, they don’t even want to take a second look at your application, but I’m 36 and that was the only criminal charge that I’ve ever had in my whole life. I had never been in trouble before, never got a speeding ticket or nothing, and that one charge basically ruined me.”
As for his current employment, if it wasn’t for his connection with a friend, who gave him a job in his car lot, he would be having a much more difficult process finding a job.
He expressed the way his felony completely changed his way of living. He isn’t able to express himself and do certain activities because his felony gets in the way.
“That’s another thing with a felony, you can’t hunt anymore… I have a 16-year-old daughter and we love to go hunting and stuff, now I can’t, I can’t ever do that again with her because of a foolish mistake that I made when I was getting high.”
This comes to show the barriers that a felony creates, whether it’s employment, where an employer is less likely to give you a chance because you have a felony, or everyday life, where you have to regulate your actions because you have a limited amount of freedom.
With the help of the reentry program and his positive relationships, Bruce has been able to rebuild himself into a better person. Before going into the program, many people have assumptions on what the process may be. As for Bruce, “[he went] in [Reentry] and started utilizing the program to [his] benefit. With the help of the program [he] is able to have a sense of…[being] grounded,” which helps him have better control of his actions. The program has many regulations and expectations, which Bruce expressed is a plus because it has helped him express a better side of himself. In the program, he is able to “talk to [the counselors] about a lot of stuff and [they don’t] hold judgment against [him]… they’re willing to help in any possible way they can.” With this great amount of support and guidance, Bruce has been able to reclaim his name and enhance his self-esteem. The program isn’t just something that Bruce does because he has to, but much rather something he is taking advantage of, in order to recover his relationship with his community.
A mistake does not define who you are. As for Bruce, he didn’t plan to go through the events that went on in his life, but he has turned it around to create something out of himself. It is very admirable that Bruce, and others, are able to grow from their mistakes and use them as a source of improvement.
“Some people, you know, they look at it and they’re thinking ‘Wow, that’s great, you know, he made a mistake, he’s, you know, trying to better his life now,’ and then other people just look at him and say, ‘Oh, he’s a criminal, you know, that’s what he deserves,’ and they kind of look down on you as if they are better than you because you made an honest mistake in your life [and] they don’t even want to give you a chance.”
A person is more than an error and fault in their life. It all depends on what path someone chooses to make after the mistake. We have come to learn, just like Bruce, many people go through struggles that may lead to a simple mistake, but they are fighting to gain the respect of being seen as everyone else. People that have been incarcerated, and are returning back to the community, also know that everything is not handed to you. You have to work twice as hard because more is expected from you.
“I know they don’t want to come [to the Reentry Services Center], but honestly just, basically what I am telling them is, just give it a try. It isn’t for everybody, everybody is not going to like it, but it will help you if you put that effort out to help yourself.”