What a Former Prisoner Taught Me About Freedom
What is freedom and what is it like to lose it?
That’s what I kept asking myself while I was talking to Harley Blakeman in his sunny, well-lit office in Columbus, Ohio. With his buttoned-up shirt, well-groomed hair, and wide smile, you wouldn’t immediately think of the word “felon.”
The terrible F word is applied to people of all sizes, shapes, colors, and creeds once they’ve been convicted of a felony, and you don’t get rid of it, no matter how long it has been since you committed a crime. In Harley’s case, he was arrested 3 weeks after his 18th birthday. He’s now 27, has been out of prison for nearly eight years, and still feels the impact to this day.
In his office, we sat and talked for nearly an hour about his experience getting out of prison and reintegrating into society. The story started when he began to tell me about the lead up to his release:
Harley: It’s weird. When you’re incarcerated, you think about this “day” all the time.
More than you ever thought about Christmas or more than you ever thought about your birthday, this is like the day you think about every day when you’re incarcerated.
And people constantly talk very regularly about what are you going to do the day you get out. Who are you going to see? What are you going to eat? Where are you going to go? People talk about it in excitement, like they’re almost reminiscing on all the things they’re missing out on.
The day before I got out I was anxious. I was moving to Ohio from Georgia, and so I had distant relatives picking me up that I barely knew. I had met them a handful of times during the holidays, and I was anxious because it was going to be a brand new situation: brand new challenges, brand new everything.
But I was also excited because, in my mind, I had told my family that when I get out I want to visit this girl in Savanah, Georgia, and I want to go to this place, and get a meal, and do this, this, and this, and then we can go to Ohio.
When they picked me up, the day I got out, it was obviously like the best day of your life. Imagine being locked in a room for 427 days, and then finally the door opens and you’re like, “Oh my god, I’m free!” It was amazing. Walking out, it was a beautiful day. I got picked up by my aunt and my Grandma, and they cried their eyes out.
But I really didn’t know how to feel. I was thankful, though. So, we got in the car and my aunt proceeded to tell me that
we’re not going to her house,
we’re not going out to eat,
we’re going straight to Columbus, Ohio.
The first thing that happened when I got in the car was the first piece of discipline. Not discipline in a negative way, but discipline as in you’re not going to do what you want to do right now. You’re going to do what you need to do and it’s not going to be fun.
For years before I went to prison, I was basically a homeless teen. I was living with friends, but different places all the time and didn’t have a steady address. No one, none of my friends’ parents stepped up to be like, “Listen when you stay in our house, this is how we do things.” They just let me crash there because they felt bad about my situation.
So when I got out of prison, for the first time I had an adult that was like, “No here’s what we’re going to do and here’s why.”
That was the day I got out. Rode to Columbus, Ohio. Woke up at night. Went inside, and then the next day it was straight to dealing with all the things that I had backed up. I had to go to a probation officer, I had to start doing community service, and I had to start looking for a job.
Harley: I was lucky. Now, I know I was lucky. At the time, I thought I was unlucky. When I got out, my Aunt said, “Look, if you’re going to stay with us we have a list of things you’re going to have to do.” She was like, “You have to get a job. You can’t stay out past 8 o’clock. You’re not allowed to have a cell phone while you live here. You can only use the internet if we’re supervising.”
Then, there was the logistical stuff [she said] like, “You have to go see your probation officer immediately. You have to start doing community service this week” because I had 400 hours of community service I had to do. “You have to get a bank account setup.” She just had all the things that are reasonable.
I didn’t have an ID card, social security card, or birth certificate. So I had to figure out how to get all three. And you need two [ids] just to get one, and I had none. So, it was a nightmare. And they made me [do everything], day two.
“This is all you’re focused on until you get all these things checked off. No hanging out with anybody. No skateboarding. No any of that. You even need to do like one chore per day.” They were worried that when I got out, I was going to be institutionalized, like some crazy guy who lost his mind in prison. I wasn’t that way, but all that rigid structure and checklist kept me in line and I’m really thankful for that now.
Getting back into society
Me: What percent of your life was dedicated to making sure you didn’t go back?
Harley: As strange as it sounds, it almost like just becomes 100%. Because literally like I changed everything about me to not go back to prison. I literally stopped everything. I used to do all prescription pills. Smoke weed. Do cocaine. Party. Stay up all night long playing video games.
I got out and worked 60 or 70 hour weeks. I wouldn’t spend money on things like Chipotle or a pack of cigarettes because I had just decided I have to have money to overcome this. I have to work hard, save money, and I’m probably not going to be successful if I don’t go to college.
Probably 10–20% of the time was me doing community service or going to my parole officer. 100% of the time was me intentionally talking to myself during the day, “This is what you need to do, this is why you need to do it. This is why you shouldn’t be focused on fun.”
I’ll tell you, incarceration in America, for the most part, is punitive and it’s not-rehabilitative. So most people, including me, in prison, we’re not given much opportunity. In fact, where I was at, there was nothing but church and GED. I got my GED in like two months of being there. So the other 8 months there was no development opportunity at all, which sucks because when you get out, tax dollars had paid for you to be there every day, but there was no value-added while you’re there. In fact, it’s just diminishing your value significantly.
[For example,] one of the biggest problems, I would say, more than employment, is housing. So if you get out, you need an apartment. Even the cheapest apartments, a little 350-dollars-a-month apartment in the suburbs somewhere. You apply, you pay $35 for an application fee. And they don’t let you in, but they keep your application fee and they tell you, “we don’t let felons in.” Well, none of these places say they don’t let felons in until after you apply. You have really no idea how to know. You just hope. And you can’t do that. It’s a huge problem because you’re working washing dishes or construction or something. Many people don’t have an aunt, dad, or mom that’s going to let them stay there until they find a place.
That’s one of the biggest struggles, especially for someone with a violent offense — any type of violent offense. If it’s like, you got drunk at a bar, got in a fight, and got charged with assault, you’re going to have an extremely hard time trying to find a place to live.
[It reminds me of] Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs. I think it starts with like food, shelter, stability, security.
You can’t care about your professional career, or love, or many things until you have food and shelter. But when you get out of prison, you can’t have any of them because don’t have money and you have no place to live.
I was lucky, but many people come out and they are staying in a halfway house or a homeless shelter while they try to get a job. And they can’t get a house without a job, and they can’t get a job without an address. It’s just a bad cycle.
Me: Was there a time when you realized you were going to make it? When you finally felt stable?
Harley: I had done really well for about a year. I went to community college and I was getting As and Bs. When I got into Ohio State, I just had this light — that everything was working the way that I never thought it could. Things were just working. It wasn’t necessarily a degree that was going to do it for me. It was just this feeling that I had sparked in myself — of like I could do anything. Like I felt like I could do anything. I guess by that time I had been out for two and a half years.
Me: Do you feel more or less free, or the same now as compared to when you first got out?
Harley: I feel less scared, but I don’t feel necessarily more free. Unfortunately, it’s not necessarily a law that makes people with records struggle. People battle with the fear that a probation officer can send you back to prison for 5 to 10 years for a technical violation. “Oh, you lost your job and didn’t have one within two weeks? I’m sending you to prison for six years because you lost your job.” And that sucks. It’s not freedom, and it’s living in fear. When you paid your debt to society, but there’s laws in place that facilitate you going back easily. So, I’m not as scared now. I actually completely mine. I’m done. I’m not on papers anymore. They can’t just scoop me up. I actually have to be convicted of a crime to be sent back to prison.
However, I still don’t feel free because it’s not a law or a system that holds people back in America when you have a record. It’s a stigma. Somehow our country came to the conclusion that if you commit a crime, pay your debt to society, it does not matter, you can’t be trusted anymore. And that’s just how it is. The word “Felon” or the word “Prison”. People, if they find out about, they don’t look at you as like a strong person. They don’t look at you as “I feel so bad for that person.” They immediately pass judgment because of the stigma.
I was struck by so many parts of this story: The fight to become normal again. The struggle to save money. Being deathly afraid of going back to prison. Initially, I thought that once you served your time, that was it. You’re good to go, but that is so far from the case. Harley had a choice. He could work his ass off and make himself into a completely different person, or make a couple of mistakes and go right back to prison.
Additionally, when I see the logical impasses in the story, it’s amazing that anyone makes it at all. Simple things that we take for granted like getting a new ID card or applying for housing become much more complicated for someone who is a convicted felon.
Harley went on to tell me about not only the challenge of these basic things but also the way in which a person has to rebound psychologically after they are put through the prison system. He described what it was like to sleep next to people you fear: the guards, the other inmates. He saw the body of a 19-year-old who had slit his own wrist. He saw someone beaten within an inch of their life and no one helped.
When you first get into prison shave your head, they strip you naked, make you stand naked in a room full of people, shine a flashlight up your ass, and treat you like cattle. The whole time the guards are making sick jokes that are too dark to repeat. They even assign you a number. What came to mind for me was that this was systematic dehumanization. Harley compared it to the Stanford Prison Experiment. I thought of death camps.
Nowhere in our laws or system of justice does it say that part of your punishment is that you have to learn to become a human being again. At that point, it becomes a potential life sentence. People carry the scars of their time in prison for years, even if they weren’t sexually or physically assaulted. You’re not free to just leave those memories behind.
If you asked Harley what made all the difference in his story, he’d likely say three things: First, he was incredibly lucky to have the support of his family that helped him when he first got out. Second, he made the choice to be dedicated to changing his life every single day for years. Third, education. He now is a proud member of the Formerly Incarcerated College Graduate Network Facebook Group. Fun fact: There are over two thousand members and Harley swears that half of them are PhDs.
In America, we love our freedom, but when we start to get into the weeds of the meaning of that freedom, that’s where we start to disagree. How much do you have to be forced to be considered unfree? How many trade-offs do you have to make? How much of your mental life has to be consumed by thoughts of survival in order for us to say that you’re not free?
It’s easy to dismiss when it’s not your freedom in question. Don’t wait until it is. These stories are on every corner. The footprints of them left on every sidewalk.
Learn more: Harley Blakeman now is the Founder and CEO of HonestJobs.co, where he helps formerly incarcerated people find fair chance employment opportunities.
No financial incentive has been provided for this article.