First Day Home


Fourteen years ago, I met Jean Sanders on a sidewalk in Harlem. Time Magazine had sent me there to write about former President Bill Clinton's new office space, but Jean, who had just gotten out of prison, turned out to be more interesting.

I ended up following Jean off and on for a year and writing a story about Jean and the half a million Americans who get out of prison each year. Jean and I stayed in touch and became friends. We went out to dinner at Junior's in Brooklyn when he got off parole. Then, four years ago, his demons returned. Depressed and using drugs again, he went back to prison.

The other day, Jean got out again. Soon afterwards, we had dinner at Junior's once again, and we took this photo on a frigid afternoon in Times Square. I asked him to write a guest blog post about that first day of freedom--which was very different from how it is portrayed on TV.

Reading what he wrote, I was struck by his use of the passive voice. "I was placed into a state van," he wrote. And then later: "I was told to have a seat." When you are in prison--and even after you get out--things happen to you much of the time. You are moved; you don't move by yourself. Jean's dispatch from Day 1 captures this powerlessness in a way I could not, and I thank him for sharing it with us here.

First Day Out

By Jean Sanders

ON the morning of January 21, 2015, after four years, three months and three days at Woodbourne Correctional Facility, I was placed into a state van with two corrections officers. I hadn’t been able to eat or sleep. Like most men about to be released from prison, I was haunted by unknowns: Will my family receive me with open arms? How will my parole officer be? Will I get a job? Do I have to go to a shelter? It’s enough to drive a brother crazy.

During the van ride, I paid no attention to the beautiful views of upstate New York going by my window. I kept asking myself, ‘Why are they taking me to the city, instead of Brooklyn, where my mother lives? Are the cops going to re-arrest me?’ I racked my mind, trying to think if I had done something long ago that might come back to me. No, I reminded myself, they would have arrested me at the prison. I’ve seen how the marshals wait outside to take custody of a released prisoner who has an immigration hold or a case in another state.

The corrections officers saw that I was troubled and did their best to calm me down. I knew one from inside the facility, and he talked me through the whole process. He said he was going to stay with me every step of the way.

Before I knew it, I looked up and saw the Empire State building. My mind came rattling back to earth. I tried to do a breathing exercise to control the anxiety. Breathe in through the nose, hold for three, then breathe out through the mouth, repeat.

We pulled up to the parole office, and one of the officers got out and went into the building. I stayed in the locked van, doing my breathing, trying not to hyperventilate. The officer came back and unlocked the door. Then I got out, and they walked me into the parole waiting room. I placed my two bags in a corner, as instructed, and walked through a metal detector. I was told to have a seat and wait for my parole officer. Two and a half hours went by, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong.

When my parole officer finally called my name, I got up and went into her office. She laid down the 23 conditions of my release: Be home from 7 pm – 7 am. No drinking or drugs. Keep my appointments. Don’t hang out with known felons. Don’t leave the five boroughs of New York City. Take my medication.  On and on. I listened, reminding myself that freedom ain’t free.

After that, I was placed into another van with two ladies to go home to Brooklyn. On the way, they kept asking me if I was alright. They said they were going to help me transition back into society. They gave me a $100 gift card to Pathmark and a $10 Subway card.

When we pulled up to my mother’s house, I breathed for the first time. My nephew came out and took my bags into the house. I was home.

Holding back the tears in my eyes, I said goodbye to the nice ladies, thanking them for the ride. I signed the paper work and nodded at their reminders to make my appointments and to take my meds.

Then I came into the house and hugged my mom and nephew. My mom said I was fat, and I laughed. After about an hour or so, she wanted to cook me something to eat. But I said no. Suddenly, I was craving a Subway sandwich. I walked two blocks with my gift card and ordered my first meal home: a roast beef sandwich with all the trimmings and a Dr. Pepper.

I brought it home and ate it at the kitchen table, enjoying every bite. Then I leaned back in my chair and took it all in. I was home. Free and not free.

To Be Continued.

(You can find Jean Sanders on Twitter @jeansanders1.)

ResilienceAmanda Ripley