New Books Explore the Challenges of Coming Home from Prison
by Victoria Law
“Reno hadn’t wanted to stay in prison, but she wasn’t ready for the streets. Wasn’t half the way she remembered.” — Sin Soracco, Edge City
California’s prison system has continually made news this past year. Over 30,000 people rocked its prison system with a mass hunger strike that lasted nearly 60 days. News about coerced sterilizations in its women’s prisons shocked and outraged prisoner rights and reproductive justice activists, leading to legislative hearings. At least two prison sites were found to be toxic. People sentenced under California’s Three Strikes continue to languish in prison and the numbers of prisoners aged 55 or older have increased by over 500% between 1990 and 2009. To top it off, Governor Brown continues to resist the 2011 Supreme Court order to decrease prison overcrowding.
But what about those fortunate enough to be released? We hear less about them although studies have shown that nearly 95% of incarcerated people are eventually released from prison. So now might be a good time to ask how people who have personally experienced incarceration fictionalize their experiences to create stories of reentry. How do their own experiences shape their message and their tone? How do differences in race and gender affect their stories?
W.F. Redmond’s Slapped by Injustice (San’Dei’Jun Publishing, 2012) and Sin Soracco’s Edge City (PM Press, 2012) provide insight into some of the challenges of reentry. Both Redmond and Soracco have spent time in California prisons; both draw upon these experiences to write fictional accounts of coming home.
Redmond is a black man who has spent 40 years in California’s prison system. He is still in prison today awaiting a court decision that may (or may not) overturn his parole reversal. One might not expect someone in his situation to have an optimistic outlook. But Redmond does. Just look at the name of his protagonist: Duane Freeman.
Slapped by Injustice opens with a paroled Freeman already working as a janitor in a high-end mental hospital. Freeman is well-liked by his colleagues and supervisors, none of whom hold his prison record against him. He lives with his girlfriend Graciela, whom he met while in prison, and her three young children, who adore him. Even his parole officer likes him. His life seems like nearly every incarcerated person’s dream of coming home.
Then Freeman discovers a psychiatrist sexually abusing a patient. He wrestles with the dilemma of whether to keep his head down and keep his job or speak up and suffer the consequences. After all, what is the word of a black ex-felon against that of a well-respected, frequently published white psychiatrist? Like many others returning home from prison, Freeman grapples with trying to earn enough money to support his new family as well as navigating his relationship with Graciela and her family.
In contrast, Edge City has a less optimistic feel. Sin Soracco is a white woman who spent time in California’s prison system during the 1970s. During her incarceration, she participated in at least one prison riot during, which she fictionalized in her previous novel Low Bite (PM Press, 2010). While Soracco has been out of prison for a number of years even with the privilege of white skin, she has doubtlessly seen and experienced obstacles that accompany a criminal conviction and prison record. For Reno, add in no money, family or friends to fall back on and prospects would seem pretty bleak indeed. This may explain why none of her characters ever have Freeman’s luck.
Edge City follows Reno, a white woman fresh out of prison. Except for an unfriendly parole officer, no one is waiting for her outside the prison walls. . She checks into a cheap hotel and worries about how to pay the rent. Her ex-girlfriend Susanna, who now goes by Su’ad the Fortunate, is working as a belly dancer in the rundown Club Istanbul. Although Susanna is none too thrilled to see her, Reno begins waitressing at the club, beginning the dreary hustle of trying to make ends meet without ending up back in prison. “She still had no money, no credit cards, no prospects,” we learn. “One step closer to crashing homeless on the streets or going back to jail. She grumbled: the only difference between the Royal Hotel and the joint was that no one leaned out of any of the cells at the Royal to greet her as she chuffed up the hall.”
As a dark noir Edge City isn’t without its extra layer of intrigue. While Reno waitresses for fifty-cent tips, she also hatches bigger, less-legal, plans. Although she’s the only parolee at the club, she’s not the only one scheming; nearly everyone Reno meets has ulterior motives. Reno is reminded of her lack of opportunities — as an ex-felon and a parolee — again and again. She has skills but “the law takes exception to them so I don’t use them.” Her talents at taking locks apart, disabling alarms and motion sensors, spotting the most valuable items in the room, do her no good in the professional job market. So where does that leave her?
Curiously, neither book condemns the odds stacked against a parolee. Freeman’s continued luck is attributed to hard work and upright morals. When he thinks that he was undercharged by several hundred dollars, he tries to correct the mistake. There’s no acknowledgment of the structural conditions that prevent others from having the same life that Freeman enjoys. The parolees who don’t make it are the hustlers and users, like Khalid Hendricks, whom Freeman describes as “East Oakland’s own self-proclaimed ‘Gangsta Playa-wannabe rapper’ and general all around leech!” Hendricks has no jobs or plans; instead he mooches off and abuses his girlfriend, eventually ending up back in prison. Similarly, Reno’s few options is not connected with systemic conditions either.
While neither book offers a detailed snapshot of the many hurdles accompanying reentry, both are riveting stories that keep the reader turning the page. Will Freeman follow his conscience and expose the exploitative psychiatrist? Or will he play it safe, keep his mouth shut and keep his job? Will Reno’s dreams and schemes land her back in prison? Both books humanize their protagonists past their prison ID numbers and ex-felon labels.
The books add to the repertoire, but don’t necessarily show the reader the political landscape that causes these realities. People coming home from prison face numerous barriers to reentry, such as being denied housing or employment because of a criminal conviction. At a recent conference on the Affordable Care Act and incarceration, Emily Wang, a professor at the Yale School of Medicine and co-founder of the Transitions Clinic Network, a national network of 11 community health centers caring for recently released prisoners, pointed out that 40% of people behind bars have had no access to health care before entering jail or prison. When they leave prison, they still lack access to affordable health care. While the recently-passed Affordable Care Act may enable more people to access medical coverage, it remains to be seen what will really happen for the 670,000 people released from prison each year.
One can hope that depictions of sympathetic people returning home from prison and facing these seemingly insurmountable odds will encourage readers to listen more critically when media and politicians demonize formerly incarcerated people as they push policies and further restrictions on accessing services and resources.
To learn more about systemic barriers to reentry and grassroots organizing to remove these obstacles:
- Formerly Incarcerated and Convicted People’s Movement
- Ban the Box: a campaign to eliminate the felony check-box from initial job application forms
- All of Us or None: grassroots organization fighting against discrimination facing people with arrest or conviction histories
Victoria Law is a writer, photographer, mother, and Contributing Author for New Clear Vision. She is the author of Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles Of Incarcerated Women (PM Press, 2009), the editor of the zine Tenacious: Art and Writings from Women in Prison, and a co-founder of Books Through Bars — NYC. Her most recent book, Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind, focuses on how radical movements can support the families in their midst.