Returning to Jail as a Free Man
Sometimes not knowing what to expect is better than having any expectations — maybe because it forces you to focus on the present moment, leaving little room for thoughts of potent disappointments. So I didn’t set any expectations when I walked into the front entrance of the D.C. Jail’s Central Treatment Facility in December for my first visit back as a free man. I had been recently released after serving over 26 years in prison, and I know all too well the inner workings of the carceral ecosystem. But I was shocked that as I walked through that facility as a visitor and not an inmate, I experienced a level of anxiety that I never felt before when I was incarcerated.
Physically, my body was free, walking through the corridor escorted by a correctional officer. Yet the soul has a memory. And I as walked into the inmate chapel area for the Georgetown Prison Scholars Program’s end-of-semester celebration in December 2022, I felt the manacles of a 26-year nightmare clamp around my heart again. I couldn’t believe the mere sight of Black bodies in orange jumpsuits would trigger me to look down at my own attire, just to make sure I wasn’t living in some Twilight Zone. At that moment I didn’t want to be there. Yet I had to be there. I NEEDED to be there.
One could easily say, “Man, you just did all that time in prison, why would you need to go back into a prison, even if it’s just to visit someone?” When I was incarcerated, I once read that people shouldn’t look for happiness. Happiness finds you when you give yourself to a cause that’s greater than yourself. So it was at that moment, being locked up, where I truly found a sense of freedom. Because I quickly understood that even though being in prison was beyond my control at that time, being a prisoner was optional. Learning about myself and wanting to become the best at bringing out the best in others, I chose to use education as my platform for transformation. So, on that late evening in 2022, I needed to walk back into that jail and see some of my former classmates and show them that our efforts of elevating ourselves are not in vain.
Less than a year ago I stood at the same chapel podium, addressing my fellow scholars about the importance of using our time while incarcerated to invest in ourselves. Even though I didn’t know what the future had in store for me back then, I still took advantage of the educational opportunities that were presented to me at that time. Now, five months later, standing before this group of scholars as a free man, a Georgetown student, and employee at the Prisons and Justice Initiative, I spoke about how it’s their turn to use their education to find liberation despite their confinement. Reminding the scholars that every end-of-semester celebration at the D.C. Jail is a new beginning in the stories of their lives was more important that avoiding my own memories of my incarceration. From the look in their eyes as I spoke to them wearing my own clothes and not an orange jumpsuit, showed me how I could be a symbol of hope for others. A cause greater than myself.
A new level of happiness filled my heart that evening. It was an unexpected joy and a much-needed experience, despite the anxiety I initially felt. I think sometimes we all need reminders of connections. My presence at the Prison Scholars ceremony showed that even though I am no longer in prison, I still care and am still connected to the incarcerated scholars through a shared experience. My successful transition into society can be easily replicated by them if they continue to choose the path of academic excellence. Hopefully I left a lasting impression on some of my classmates still trapped in the struggle of confinement.
Colie “Shaka” Long is a Program Associate at the Prisons and Justice Initiative. He is also an author, speaker, and criminal justice reform advocate.
- Prison Scholars