I’m Getting Out After Decades in Prison. But Prison Might Follow Me Home.
Incarcerated writer Nick Hacheney is getting ready to leave after being incarcerated for more than 20 years. He’s glad he’ll have his freedom—but he’s also worried about the lack of care for longtime prisoners, the trauma he’s endured, and what the world outside holds.
Nick Hacheney Jun 05, 2023
It’s spring in Washington state. That means rain, lots of rain. But when the clouds break, it’s beautiful. The red-breasted robins hunt worms on every patch of grass. The foliage radiates a vibrant green. The nearby Olympic mountain range is still capped with snow and, if I squint just right, I can see past the chain-link fences topped with rolls of barbed wire. This isn’t my first spring in prison—in fact, it’s my 22nd. I usually greet spring with a sense of optimism and relief. The long dark days of winter are behind us and it means more time outside. But this spring I am a little preoccupied, as all I can think about is how I might soon be leaving.
At my next annual review, we will start working on my exit from prison. As part of what’s called a Mutual Reentry Plan, or MRP, I am now eligible for a minimum security camp and, in under three years, will be on the streets at a work release facility. To say I’m excited and hopeful is an understatement. But to be honest, I have to add apprehension to my list of emotions, too.
In part, that’s because I’m at the point in my incarceration where people I have done decades of time with are starting to trickle out of this place. I stay in touch with a few specific guys because we are close friends—and also because they’re a few miles down a road I’ll soon be traveling. While they all appear to be doing well on the surface—jobs, apartments, cars, etc.—I can detect notes of sadness and concern in their voices when I speak to them. They’ll never say it to me directly because when someone gets out after a long sentence, the last thing they want to do is complain to those left behind. But I can hear it.
For reasons that may not seem obvious to anyone but other prisoners, I’m troubled. When you are serving a long sentence, all you can think about is how much better life is going to be after getting out. Anything has to be an improvement on this tortuous existence. But how horrible would it be to serve all this time focusing on getting out and then fail to find the happiness you have been dreaming of for so long?
Just like there is a vast difference between serving a long sentence and a short one, life after serving a long sentence is vastly different than it is for someone who only did a handful of years. One is like coming home after a very long trip. The other is like coming back from the dead.
Virtually all reentry services are geared toward helping those who have served short sentences avoid coming back. There are almost no programs targeting long-term prisoners or the specific burdens they carry with them.
When a person comes to prison for an average sentence—typically three to five years—their focus is usually on keeping the things in their life intact. They may focus on their sobriety, spend a lot of time on the phone trying to maintain strained relationships, and count down the days until they’re released. When they get out they will try to put their life back together and avoid coming back to prison. Almost all reentry services focus on job referrals, regular check-ins with the obligatory cup of urine, and housing vouchers for cheap apartments in areas that people coming out of prison really shouldn’t live in. There’s about a 50/50 chance they’ll make it three years without coming back.
But long sentences have different and specific impacts on the people who serve them. A 20-year sentence isn’t just twice as bad as a 10-year one, or even four times as bad as a five-year sentence. I don’t know how the math works, but there is some type of accumulated trauma-multiplier to long sentences.
Over the next quarter of a century, four characters will become constant companions that, like some viruses, will remain long after the sentence is over.
The first is Violence. Prisons are violent spaces and, over the years, prisoners will experience Violence in many forms—against themselves, against others, by the hands of your keepers, and even to protect themselves. Violence creates a hard outer shell that you would like to strip away, but can’t because your survival depends on it. It isn’t a choice—it’s evolution.
The next companion is Loss. Family, friends, wage-earning years, youth—all will be casualties to the passage of time. In their place will be the constant sense of Loss that long-term prisoners must come to grips with. In order to live with Loss, you have to convince it that you don’t care about anything or anyone. The problem is that it’s a lie and you both know it.
Oppression shows up on day one and never leaves. Every time you return to your cell to find your few precious possessions in a pile on the floor and a search report on your bunk, you know it was Oppression. The policies and practices that make it nearly impossible to maintain relationships—the harsh directives and constant mocking, the bullying tactics and unnecessary meanness—come at the hands of Oppression. Oppression cannot be overcome or reasoned with—only endured. So you build up tremendous tolerance and promise yourself that someday, you will be free of Oppression.
The final companion, Neurosis, haunts the corners of your consciousness like a ghost, always threatening to jump out and chase you down. You recognize the signs of PTSD and institutionalization. And you develop safety mechanisms for the multiple triggers you now have. You’ve seen the old-timers with their variety of ticks and quirks. You do what you can to keep Neurosis at bay. But like any good ghost story, it keeps you up at night.
The problem with these four companions is that they aren’t just prison buddies. What I’ve learned from my released friends is that they stay with you long after you leave prison.
People who leave prison after two or three decades don’t walk out—they run. You’d think after spending half their life there, building memories and relationships, there would be more of a ceremony. A few long goodbyes, maybe a last look at a couple of key places. But I’ve seen it time after time: A guy sits in his cell and waits for the loudspeaker to call his name, then he gets up, grabs his bag and scampers out. Maybe there’s a slight wave to a few well-wishers, but usually, it’s like he’s afraid somebody is going to change their mind. Or, worse, that he will wake up from the dream he’s having. I’ve watched dozens of “lifers” get out and not one of them ever looked back. That’s just in the movies.
When a person returns to society after being gone for more than 20 years, they receive the same treatment from the prison system as someone who just did 12 months. They are expected to immediately get a job, start paying off their legal debts, and comply with all their conditions of community custody: no alcohol, no travel without permission, and no contact with anyone who has a felony. Of course this means that, for the near future, they’re cut off from the very people who have been the most significant to them: the network of lifers who support each other through common hardship. Likewise, any volunteers, educators, chaplains, or social advocates who have come up to the prison, and oftentimes have had the most impact, are off-limits. This near-total isolation leaves the former prisoner with only his four faithful companions.
And they show up at the most inconvenient times.
Violence is in the coffee shop when you find yourself shaking after a college kid slaps his backpack on the table, making a noise eerily similar to the sound of a human head hitting concrete. Violence screams “get down” when a car alarm goes off, bringing back memories of riots in the big yard.
Loss has been at your side since you walked away from prison and left your most significant friends behind. It’s at every check-in reminding you that this freedom can be easily taken away with the strokes of a pen from an overworked bureaucrat. It constantly reminds you that consequences for you are more severe than others.
Oppression is more subtle. But getting barked at by your employer, something that most people are used to and can easily shake off, lingers with you like a bad cold. An interaction with a rude cashier or apartment manager can have you in a cold sweat as Oppression smirks in the background.
Neurosis is probably your closest companion, firmly embedded in the back of your mind. A trip to the grocery store or other crowded space can be nauseating, and makes you fear that the feeling may never leave.
And so, without previous support systems, the former prisoner is left to navigate this new world with these four characters on their back. There is little else to do but build up new defenses and safety mechanisms. Avoid situations that might lead to conflict. Guard yourself against losses. Minimize your risk-taking.
With all this grimness, you may be surprised to learn that the former long-term prisoner is not in any real danger of returning to prison. People who spend 20 or more years in prison rarely return, and if they do, it is almost never for a serious offense. The same skills that allowed them to navigate and survive so long inside prison ensure they will not come back. And they are usually very accomplished, make great employees, pay their bills on time, and stay out of trouble. It is a sad statistic, but they are more likely to take their own lives than to commit another serious crime. At the end of the day that’s really all that the legal system, and much of society, is concerned with—that former prisoners don’t commit new crimes. “Quality of life” never comes into the picture.
But I can’t be satisfied with that as the definition of successful reentry. I mean, if a person goes to the trouble of surviving decades in hell, shouldn’t they have some level of peace and happiness when they finally get out? Something better than simply not going back to prison?
My friend Steve, one of the kindest men I know, will be going home soon, too. Steve recently was given clemency after spending over three decades in prison. He is currently finishing his MRP and should be out later this summer. I’ve known Steve for about 20 years—he is soft-spoken, humble, and attends every positive program ever offered in the prison. He’s always there to help set up and is the last one to leave after sweeping the floor or stacking the chairs. He’s just one of those really great guys.
Now, he’s finally leaving, and I will be paying close attention. Not because I am worried he will make it—I’d literally bet my future freedom on the fact that Steve will never commit another crime—but I will be watching and hoping that he finds real happiness.
It seems if there is going to be something better, something akin to a therapeutic environment for long-time prisoners, we will have to build it ourselves. We’ll have to do what we did on the inside and create networks to really support each other, whether it’s helping a guy get set up in a business he’s been dreaming of for years or simply meeting at an IHOP on a Saturday morning. I even envision intentional communities for people coming out of long-term incarceration, like landing spots to get them set for the next chapter of life. And I know we can build this. Lifers are some of the most resilient and capable people I’ve ever known. Anyone who has survived decades behind bars can do just about anything.
I’m about to start my MRP and head down the pathway to freedom. I can’t wait to sit around a campfire with the guys I did this time with. To retell old stories and laugh at jokes that only we get the punchlines to. I can think of a dozen guys I’d like to join me, but I know four old companions who are not invited.
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