I was released from the Federal Correction Institution, Tallahassee one year ago. I was taken to the Greyhound bus station and given a ticket to head home to New York. For the first time in close to a year, I went unescorted to a store to buy a cup of coffee. I didn’t feel free. I felt anxious.
I have been in prison twice. The first time, I was 60 years old, and I was convicted on three felony counts of tax evasion and one count of mail fraud. I was released when my case was overturned as two of the tax charges were deemed legally insufficient based upon the evidence presented by the government. I then went to prison a second time at age 63 when one of the tax evasion charges was retried. Prior to both trials, I was offered plea bargains with no jail time, but I was innocent so I fought the charges.
Prior to my arrest, I worked for decades. I had a home, family, extended family, and friends. And while I was awaiting trial—a period that lasted 12 years—my father was my greatest supporter. He wanted me to be close to family so he offered me an apartment in New Jersey. He supported me financially by covering my health insurance, electric bills, phone, and car payments. But after I moved there, he passed away unexpectedly.
After my father died, I had my apartment but no money. I lost my attorney. I was hungry and would go to Sam’s Club to eat their samples for dinner. And, after I was convicted and went to prison, my apartment was rented out. I had lived there for more than ten years while I awaited trial following my arrest.
After I lost my first trial, I was sent to a federal prison camp that was difficult for an older person. The prison camp was divided into an upper compound, which contained the housing units, health center, library, chapel, and recreation buildings; and a lower compound, which consisted of the dining hall, laundry, education center, and commissary. The return trip from the lower compound to the housing unit was over a mile and up a steep hill. I had balance problems—on rainy or snowy days I walked slowly because I feared falling. I had to stop every ten feet or so to catch my breath. The weather—severe heat in the summer and arctic cold in the winter—the terrain, and the physically tough environment of the prison were hard for older women. The stress of surviving was added pressure.
The second time I lost at trial I was sent to a higher security prison in Florida. One Physician’s Assistant (PA) there was notorious for telling every woman he examined that aches and pains were due to fat. He told me the same thing he told the others, “You are fat. You need to walk on the track and drink water.” Once, one Latina woman went to him complaining of severe stomach pains. He gave her the fat speech and several weeks later she died when her gallbladder burst. When I heard this story, I wrote about it. I sent the story via email for a friend to post on my website. Correctional officers read our emails and when they saw an officer was mentioned, I was arrested, handcuffed, and taken to solitary—the Segregated Housing Unit (SHU). The officers told me I was being punished for writing about an officer.
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I was held in solitary for seven weeks. Immediately I started suffering migraines, which were soon joined by vertigo and high blood pressure. I requested medical attention but was denied. The freezing temperatures added to my physical suffering; I asked for and did not receive an extra blanket.
I also repeatedly asked the prison staff to check my blood pressure—my family had a history of heart disease. Two weeks went by before they checked it. It was 200 over 100—stroke territory. I asked the PA, “Are you going to take me to the hospital to be checked?” No, he said, and I knew my life was in jeopardy. The migraines, vertigo and high blood pressure conditions are still a problem today, and I believe the stress—the physical and mental challenge of being in solitary—caused me permanent damage.
Finally, at an age when most of my friends were preparing for retirement, I was released from the higher-security prison as a homeless, financially broke, convicted, and aging woman. I had nothing to call my own and my legal bills had consumed a lifetime of savings. I was full of fear and anxiety. I came home an orphan with a living family.
After I arrived back in New York, I had to report to a residential reentry center (RRC aka a halfway house). Under current law, RRC placements can last up to one year. However, I was permitted to stay only six weeks—a very short amount of time for reentry, especially given that I was 63, homeless, and penniless.
On top of that, this halfway house’s rules were borderline Kafkaesque. Phones were prohibited within the house. There was no Internet. Permission to leave the house was limited and often unattainable. If you managed to get permission to go somewhere that had a computer, you could apply for a job online. However, since there was no way for an employer to call you, the effort was futile. Even if you got an email response, you might not get permission to go to the job site for an interview.
Because I couldn’t demonstrate proof of employment on an application for housing or pass a background check, the only choice I had after the halfway house was a homeless shelter, aka the last place I wanted to live. And so, I arranged to join a three-quarter house, which are unlicensed facilities that rent shared rooms to people leaving mental hospitals, drug treatment programs, and prisons or jails. It’s a profitable business. This one was run by a purported feminist who claimed to care about the women she was housing.
It was a frightening sight. Eleven women were crowded into a few rooms. One working bathroom was available. I lived in a space half the size of my prison cell. My roommate and I could not stand in the room at the same time. One of us had to stay on the bed for the other to get her clothes.
I worked a $9.00 an hour job at Old Navy for the Christmas season. Standing on my feet seven hours a day was painful, and I couldn’t straighten out my back and needed to sleep to endure the next full day of work. And, although I was assigned evening hours, the house curfew was at 11:00. Women who didn’t get home on time found their belongings in garbage bags on the street. The so-called-feminist found it easy to throw women out, and I had to call her when I arrived at the house from work each night to get back in after hours.
My struggles to obtain housing in New York City haven’t ended as I don’t have credit or a job. In one telling instance, I had three in-person interviews in one week with an agency whose work focused on the formerly incarcerated. Although I was hired, the job offer was retracted only two days later. I was—and I still am—stunned by the lack of interest in employing formerly incarcerated returning citizens.
In short, I’m writing this story because I believe in coming out as a convicted felon. I believe in disclosing my history to employers, friends, and practically everyone. And as there are as many as 100 million Americans with a criminal record, if everyone “came out as a criminal,” most people would know someone. We would see increased momentum for reform on jobs, housing, and criminal justice reform more broadly. And we could build an elder justice movement that works for alternatives to incarceration for the elderly; the release of incarcerated elders; and responsible reentry specifically focused on the needs of the elderly who are returning home.
But right now I have no job and no housing. I am 64 years old and fearful I will end up in a shelter. I have fought every day to jumpstart my life, but I feel I am losing the battle.
Editor’s Note: The Federal Bureau of Prisons did not respond to TalkPoverty’s request for comment at the time of publication.