Moving Forward: Out Of Prison and Back On The Streets

Dear Visible Man,

I hope you can help me.  My son is about to be released from prison, and will be living with me and his younger brother, who is currently in high school.

My son did two years for drug possession and sales.  He did not finish high school, and does not have a skill or trade he can go into.  I am concerned that he will want to go back to the fast life he was living and the quick money he was making.

I am happy to have him home, but I am worried about how to deal with him.  What is the best way for me to help him transition into everyday life?  What are the psychological issues I can expect to deal with?

I am also concerned about how he will impact his younger brother.  My younger boy looks up to him and I do not want him to follow in his footsteps.  My younger son has not has never been in trouble with the law. He plans to attend college and wants to go to medical school.

I have always put up bail money and paid for attorneys when my son got into trouble.  I don’t want him to go back to the same behavior, and I am getting too old to continue working two jobs to keep him out of trouble.  I have always protected him.  Can you help me?

Sleepless & Tired in Seattle


My Dear Woman,

It is good to hear that your son has a release date and will soon be reunited with his family. You have raised some very serious concerns that are impactful not only for you, but for the African-American community as a whole.

Specifically, there are many of our young people who incarcerated and will be, as you said “coming back” their homes or to the community they left prior to incarceration.  Many of those “coming back” may be on some form of supervision such as parole or probation.

As a mental health professional, I believe language is very important. When it comes to language, I hold three basic and simple values:

  • There is power in words and the ways in which they are utilized.
  • If we are what we eat, then we are what we say.
  • Say what you mean and mean what you say.

Your question was:

“What is the best way I can help him back to everyday life?”

First, you must want to change the way YOU are looking at this question.  You must want to get out of the way. The REAL question that is not being asked is:

“What is the best way he can help himself back to everyday life?”

You must to stop protecting your son from himself. It is understandable that you are concerned that your son may have difficulty regarding his re-entry into the community, but it is his behavior of drug possession and sales that has caused him to go be incarcerated.

He, rather than you, must ask this essential question.  He must want to be successful in a society that will be suspicious of him and may direct hostility toward him because of his labeling as a felon, parolee or ex-convict.

Returning to the question:

“What is the best way I can help him back to everyday life?”

Your son is not going back to everyday life.  The life he left, the life he knew prior to incarceration is gone. There is no going back.  Instead your son is returning. He is returning to his community, hopefully with the intent to begin a new life that will include a new direction with a different focus, different goals, and different objectives.

You want to help your son, but it is important for you to understand that your son, in his incarceration, may have been been institutionalized. In other words, he has been leading a highly structured life while being in prison. So, consider creating expectations for your son regarding the following:

  • Household tasks
  • Curfew limits, telephone contact
  • Consumption of alcohol on the premises
  • No drugs on the premises (no exceptions)
  • Time limits placed on enrolling in educational or job training programs and/or seeking employment

Be aware that although he is your son, it is possible that the time he spent in prison may have been focused on identifying ways to manipulate the system to benefit him while he is “doing time.”  As a result, if you give an inch, he may take more.

It is essential that you take a “tough love” approach, requiring adherence to the structure you put in place.  In addition, you may want to work as a partner of the judicial, parole, and educational systems to keep your son from falling back into old behaviors.  Your son must be aware that you are unwilling to tolerate illegal activities, and that you will be in contact with his parole officer as needed.

Regarding your question,

“What are the psychological issues I can expect to deal with?”

As with the previous question, your focus on what you can do may be blocking the path of your son taking responsibility for what he can do.  It would be helpful for your son and yourself to reframe the question to the following:

“What are the psychological issues he can expect to deal with?”

Research shows that up to 50% of young males returning from incarceration will have symptoms that meet the base criteria for posttraumatic stress disorder.

Additional issues that may arise from anxiety and depression from the following:

  • Adjusting to a community in transition.
  • Responding to societal rejection due to the labeling of felon and ex-convict.
  • Lack of useable skills or employability.
  • Difficulty establishing intimate/meaningful relationships with women.
  • Internal conflict or pressure to return to comfort zones and old habits established prior to incarceration such as drugs and petty crimes

The commitment to change and move towards transformation must not come from you.  It must come from your son.

Regarding your younger son, you cannot make the decisions that will impact his future. Is he truly committed to obtaining a college education and therefore becoming a physician? Or realistically speaking, is the dream no more than a fantasy? Your son stands at the crossroads.  What will he do? Which way will he turn?

It is for him and for him alone to decide whether to follow his brother’s path or to instead keep to his vision of going to college and becoming a physician.  Either way, it will be a long and difficult road. There are three simple questions for him to ask of himself:

  • Does he have belief, faith and trust in his journey?
  • What does he really want for himself?
  • What is he willing to do in order to obtain what he wants?

As your younger son comes closer to adulthood, your role as a “parent” will change.  Instead of having the current roles of director, supervisor, manager and/or caretaker, you must want to “transform” to the role of “advocate, bystander and consultant.

Of these three roles, it is always the “bystander” role that the parent finds the most difficult to accept.  This is especially true for African-American parents like yourself who have sacrificed themselves in order to “save” their sons from the system.

This behavior is due to desperation of parents who live in fear of their sons becoming victims of either black on black homicide, racially profiled by law enforcement or involvement in the juvenile detention or adult penal systems.   This form of behavior imprisons both the parent and child in the developmental stages of “existence” and “survival.”

In order for parents to be of the most assistance to their young adults, they must want be able to live with fear and again, not in fear. The parent must want to acknowledge the young person’s ascent to adulthood, and in doing so, must be willing to step aside and allow the young adult to benefit from their own successes and to learn from their own mistakes.

Concluding Words

My Dear Woman, the last concern I will address is regarding your own journey.  I fully realize that what I am asking seems impossible.  It may appear that I am asking you to remove the shield of armor that you have encased around your sons.

In you, your sons have the model of what they can be, the hard working parent who is struggling working two jobs to provide for her children.  Allow your sons to see the best and the worst of you.  Take the plunge– Have belief, faith and trust in the manner and ways you have modeled appropriate behavior and values for your sons.  Let them decide which path they as individuals will chose to take.

Should either of your sons choose the negative path and face the judicial system again, stop seeking to save them from the system  Instead seek the following:

  • play an advocacy role by attending court hearings,
  • play a bystander role by watching him respond to the consequences of his actions and finally,
  • assume the consultant role of helping him frame and process the experiences.

One day you too will die.  No one is going to step in and save your children from the system.  They, like all adults will have to make it on their own. As we seek to protect our children from the system, we must ask ourselves the following:

  • Are we living in fear? Do I have belief, faith and trust in the values that I have taught my children?
  • Am I really seeking to save my child from the system or am I seeking to save him from his own actions and behaviors?

 “Once burned, we learn. If we do not learn we only assure ourselves that we will be burned again and again and again until …we learn.”-  Ten Flashes of Light for the Journey of Life

 The Visible Man



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