And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
–Francis Scott Key
Last month on the eve of July 4th there was one of the most dramatic lightning storms I’ve ever seen. Because my bedroom air conditioner was on, I didn’t hear anything from outside, but my cellphone, programmed to issue weather alerts, was beeping and vibrating every few seconds, warning of the advancing storm.
I love watching storms, the drama and instincts and power of nature. My husband, who just happens to be a (jaded) meteorologist, wasn’t interested in expending the energy to wake up and watch with me, so I ran around the house alone, from window to window, upstairs, downstairs, to take it all in. I saw the neighbors across the street and those with an adjoining backyard also watching from their windows, rooms darkened, lights off.
The effect was like cartoon superheroes throwing bolts of lightning at each other shouting “Wham! Pow!” The storm stayed in one place for a while, hovering over my backyard seemingly just for me.
As I was watching, in the comfort of my home, ratty nightgown and crazy hair, my thoughts went to the men and women I work with, the former inmates recently released to halfway houses scattered around Boston. I was hoping that they were experiencing the thrill of the storm, and had seen the fireworks, albeit from a still semi-state of incarceration.
The following morning I couldn’t wait to ask the first group of men I would see how it felt for them to see and hear the dramatic combination of fireworks, thunder and lightning. I was fully expecting profound and breathless answers and couldn’t wait to probe and discuss the feeling of exhilaration they must have all experienced. What I got was a plunging letdown, a deflation of my romanticized version of their newly found freedom.
“Did all of you see that amazing lightning last night?” I asked the group of 7 or so men.
“Nah, I didn’t bother to get out of bed”
“Well, did you see the fireworks from here? I mean, it has to have been a long time since you’ve seen fireworks.” I was fishing, desperate to be validated for thinking about them the night before.
“They’re just fireworks.”
The next night I went to the federal halfway house where the guys have served much longer sentences, some as long as 20 years. They tend, on the whole, to be much more candid and less reticent about expressing themselves. With the same exuberance I showed with the first group I asked the same questions about the fireworks and storm.
“We was in prison, not on Mars,” one of the guys said to me, with a teeny tiny bit of defensiveness. “We had windows in our cells.”
I didn’t want to press the issue and point out that there are large windows without bars and many different vantage points in their 5-story building that they are able to access with a greater amount of freedom than what they were used to. I let it go.
I think it’s very common for the layperson to assume that being released from prison is like bursting through the finish line of a long race, hands in the air in triumph. I have learned in the 2-years that I’ve been doing this work that there are many nuances to the idea of “freedom.” When they are in our programs they are still very accountable, in a way, even more so, than they were behind bars. Men have had panic attacks on the subway, on the busy streets of a city they don’t necessarily know and sometimes have left the house and not come back, choosing the very good possibility of being caught and returned to custody.
Yesterday I met with a lovely man of about 40 who had just served ten years for a drug crime. He was immaculately dressed in pressed chinos and a colored Polo shirt and as we were talking about looking for work and starting over, he actually teared up and had to stop.
“I’m scared,” he said. “On the day I left prison all the guys were cheering me on, wishing me luck, and all I could think about was how scared I was.”
I don’t ever feed these men and women platitudes. I sit, I listen, and my heart breaks. There are many happy endings for the men and women I serve, where they embrace freedom and opportunity, securing jobs within a week of being released, creating a new world where one may have not existed before. There is relief in their faces, but there is humility too. Freedom is not always the answer to one’s happiness and safety, and it doesn’t necessarily come with grand fanfare and a welcoming committee. This is one of many topics I now know to tread lightly, without presumption. Just another one of the many valuable lessons I’ve learned.