Reborn: a reentry documentary
It is 6:30 AM on February 5th. Angelica, Bibi's mother, and Agustina, Bibi's Grandmother, wait for Bibi outside of Edna Mahan Correctional Facility in New Jersey. A corrections van pulls up and both Mother and Daughter explode from their seats to greet each other. "All I wanted was to look at her face, and all she wanted was to pull me closer," recalls Bibi. Angelica visited Bibi every weekend for the past thirteen years. She has been Bibi's pillar of support during this period.
Bibi has a lot to come back to. A mother who will make space for her at home, and a grandmother who lives in the same building. Bibi received an associates degree while at Edna Mahon, and plans to enroll at Rutgers in the fall. She has done everything she can to set herself up for success right away. "I feel reborn today," Bibi says in the car.
This is a story of one woman's experience entering back into society after time spent in prison. Unfortunately, the cards are stacked against her. Recidivism rates are high for females (though not nearly as high as for men), and many return from violation of parole. Although Bibi made her way to the parole office immediately, the right officer was not available to see her. This is just the beginning of a series in minor frustrations that Bibi will have to endure to begin her new life.
"What I missed the most while I was in prison was space and choices. Reentry is claiming back the choices that make me feel alive again. To go running in the morning with no destination. To spend time listening to my grandmother's stories. Reentry is reaffirming my voice, and that I am visible even if I'm the only one that can see me. I know I will go through massive obstacles, but I must embrace the new person I have become.
I have learned a deep capacity to rise despite life's uppercuts. To fall is part of the human condition. To gain strength and insight from failure is part of a warrior's spirit. No cage can contain that."
The I.D. Dilemma
It took Bibi just over six weeks to obtain valid identification. Her challenges were somewhat unique but the dilemma holds true for anyone in Bibi's situation: her prisoner ID that was issued upon release is not valid for identification. The City Clerk's office in New York City rejected her card after three seconds of inspection. Bibi has points of identification toward her New Jersey ID under a married name and maiden name. In order to combine her names toward six points of identification needed for a state ID card, she needs a copy of her marriage (or divorce) certificate.
Bibi had to visit her bank, her health insurance office, the welfare office, City Clerk of New York, and the New Jersey DMV before finally collecting enough points to get ID under her maiden name. Some of these offices she would visit multiple times over the six weeks, and wait in lines for the better half of a day. Bibi applied for a welfare card because it counted toward her last point of identification. She used it nervously at the DMV because her photo was not taken for the card. They were "out of film".
"A month and a half after my release from Edna Mahan Correctional Facility and no sign of an official I.D. Perhaps this could be corrected by providing a release ID that is valid identification. The variety of places requiring an ID do not accept the plantation ID. The headbanger is this: in order for me to obtain ID I must show ID in addition to my social security and birth certificate.
Not only I have to explain I was incarcerated, but that my prison ID is under a misspelled married name. At first I thought, “Okay, no biggie” I will get my marriage certificate and divorce decree and go back to my maiden name. That would've been too logical! I have to pay $50 dollars and provide a photocopy of an official ID (the one I don't have). In becoming aware of the looks, the inquires, the attitudes and dismissiveness brought by the prison ID my frustrations intensify.
I have a savings account with Bank of Amerika. Money that I saved for this transitioning. Since the savings account was opened while in prison an ATM card was not provided. The bank offered no objections taking the cheap labor money, but without “proper” ID it was impossible to withdraw money out. Showing the only ID I have was met with full force arrogance,and lengthy inquiries about my prison sentence. I asked to see the manager because I can't afford to be betrayed by silence, nor fear, nor shame.
It is what it is, my life has become public record. Being assertive requires manipulating everyone's fears in order to get things done. I believe in affirming one's value under any circumstances. It doesn't matter how many separations are implemented (subtly or by force)... I am here to stay."
"Family life is a constant daydream for a majority of prisoners. Out of a necessity to connect to a world which you are no longer part of prisoners form tight bonds. At times these bonds are closer than blood related family members, as if the suffering endured has extended the kinship. So family life as I knew it to be before my incarceration was severed because of the emotional detachment of blood relatives, as well as expanded by other incarcerated individuals becoming family.
Visits, letters, and phone calls are sacred for a prisoner. This trinity of livelihood is how you become aware of the changes, since the life of a prisoner is extremely repetitive and structured to the point that “ time” as one knows it ceases to exist. I had to evaluate many concepts, tangible and abstract, and redefine them in a way which held meaning and cohesiveness. There's nothing more difficult than accepting the indifference of blood family members, not because of past resentments, but because the time and distance apart without communication can turn family member and prisoner into complete strangers. I wrote letters from the county all the way through my last week. The hardened callouses on my right hand serving as a reminder of long nights where I needed to reach in order to stay relevant, visible and connected in a place designed to do the opposite.
It took me years to understand that not everyone deals with incarceration head on, evasiveness can be a learned mechanism to avoid dealing with the reality, just as an addict uses escapism through self-destruction. It is important to bring this because most prisoners do not have any interaction with the “free world” and the damage is palpable.
I was(am) fortunate to have a mother that was not only there for me, but for other prisoners as well. My mother brought family members to visits for years without me knowing how far out of her way she was traveling. She kept extra clothes in her trunk to spare to those being denied a visit because of a 'new' rule, or an officer giving the visitor a hard time because of their attire. I saw once this diesel, muscular dude wearing a soft pink knitted jacket that had to be like four sizes smaller than his. Once I pointed out to my mother she nonchalantly replied, 'oh, it's mine, he came driving from Florida and they were not going to let him in.'
My mother became the mother of many, taking and making calls, checking on the well being of kids whose mothers were locked up. I literally got to know my mother and how similar I am to her. The womyn (sounds less patriarchal) who I once knew as fragile and reserved was an advocate and a courageous one. My mother and grandmother were my rock, the power house who kept my flame, my voice when at times I doubted if anyone listened, they listened. Most importantly, they believed and that was enough for me to do something. They were the fuel behind my proactive outlook.
I didn't grow up with my mother, but I could not imagine life outside without her. The resilience of human spirit is what kept us reaching for one another: geographical distance, gates, barbed wire cannot separate a bond engraved within. It's a tragedy how many dreams we let go of, perhaps because we think we can't afford them. My family helped me keep those dreams alive, because they understood my vision.
Family life is something I was not exposed to, so I wanted to break that cycle of detachment. I genuinely love and value getting up in the morning and having breakfast with my mother, listening to to her laughter, and the way she sings while taking a shower. The way she understands my humor and uplifts me when I get totally frustrated. The way I can help her with the mundane things that are not so trivial after all, like shopping for groceries, cooking for her, reminding her of her value and strength when she's going through something. Family life is spending hours at grandma's house watching her make old recipes, telling me childhood stories of survival and tenacious life-force; keeping the connective tissue between past and present. It is talking to my nephew who was born while I was in my second year of exile and still feel we know each other. My sister in law made me a promise to bring him every year, and she did. We corresponded regularly so I didn't become a stranger. Family life is my never ending quest for realness, to make sense of where I come from and where I am going along with individuals who are opened and brave enough to value each others experiences, while learning from it. It takes dedication, a heart passionate enough to believe we can heal life's battle wounds... while the cars are still visible in order to remind us of how far we've traveled...together."
Bibi is very lucky to have a place at home with her mother who has been able to help provide Bibi with food and basic necessities. Angela has even given Bibi her bed and sleeps on the couch in her one bedroom apartment. Many of those in their reentry phase do not have family support. Most end up in halfway homes, where their proximity to former neighborhoods, 'friends', and the accessibility of drugs become negative reinforcements. Some halfway homes do not have more than a microwave, so cooking and making food is nearly impossible. The cost of eating becomes an immediate struggle, and often adds to the major challenge of this time period.
Improvising a way out (a day at the job fair)
Since getting her identification, Bibi has been relentlessly looking for work. She spent several 40 hour weeks filling out applications and going to job fairs like this one in Hoboken. One of the most challenging moments for her is asking if the job in question requires a background check. Sometimes she asks outright, sometimes she avoids checking the box. 'Have you ever been convicted of a crime?' She prefers in that case to talk about what happened than being dismissed outright.
One Stop career centers also help people in Bibi's position find work. Bibi chats with everyone she meets, trying to learn which jobs are most worth her time to fill out forms and pass on her resume. Her parole officer has been pressuring her to take anything, and she has been running out of the modest savings she was able to build during her time working at Edna Mahon.
Since taking these pictures, Bibi has found job working on the night shift at a printing warehouse. During the day she has been going to a computer class to prepare herself for school in September and future jobs that may require better computer literacy.
"One has to wonder about the legit creative ways an ex-prisoner employs in order to sustain mobility with dignity. In the past week I have witnessed the similarities faced by undocumented individuals and those formerly incarcerated. A greater respect develops from this understanding as one enters a competitive job market in which both are at the bottom of the totem pole, even deeper, as if the hole where the pole was secured has become my assigned position. The key is looking for ways where this imposed stratification doesn't become the hole where you're buried, as James Baldwin accurately pointed before, great amounts of energy alone do not vanish inequalities overnight (or something along those lines).
It is 9:18am and I just got back from work. My feet are so swollen it seems that my boots are a size smaller when in fact they are a size bigger. One would think I'm still wearing my “state boots”, the worst footwear there is. I work at a printing warehouse preparing the plates for the press process requiring long hours standing and constantly moving. I was referred to a staffing agency by this attentive lady who was observing me at a job fair. By this referral I have entered the workforce of productivity where one literally works to survive." -Bibi
Education As A Path To Integration
This fall Bibi is enrolled in classes toward a degree at Rutgers University through the Mountainview Program. Bibi began taking classes while at Edna Mahon Correctional Facility as part of the NJ Step program which provides classes for 'students under the custody of the State of New Jersey while they are incarcerated'. Bibi used the opportunity to gather as much knowledge as possible and to set the stage for what has now become her new life; that of a full time student.
"The first year of college is pivotal in determining the overall outlook on the college experience. Reentry offers its own unique challenges and it takes time to acclimate with both the academic world while having a sense of civic responsibility and autonomy. Being part of the Mountainview Program is not only an opportunity to show my capabilities but a chance to show that there is a distinct narrative that proves to be effective in reducing recidivism. I'm part of this movement. Formerly incarcerated individuals bring a different perspective and a tenacious, determined spirit which thrives on opportunities to succeed. There is a sense of community because we know how far we have come.
People don't understand how bad we want this, and how diligent we must be at doing a balancing act. I'm not the only one so it is a "we". Going into campus makes me feel that it doesn't matter how stressful, exhausted, or overwhelmed I am. I work two jobs and have full time studies, so I sleep 3 to 4 hrs. I will keep striving because to give up is also giving up on the future for those exiting prison. The more society faces the reality that mass incarceration brings mass reentry, alternatives such as higher education should be recognized for its efficacy in gaining normalcy in the midst of transitioning while reaffirming that cages should not annihilate our ability to dream and redirect our paths."
While taking 18 credits Bibi is enrolled in work-study and has a night job to keep herself supported during the semester. She has also become a spokesperson for Mountainview. In her 'free time' she participates in speaking engagements. Here she sits in front of an auditorium of students at The College of New Jersey in Trenton on the topic of race, crime, and prison in the U.S. Joined by past and present Mountainview recipients. The theme of the talk gravitated toward the importance of education for each of the three speakers.