Staying Out by LeRon Barton

I consider myself a budding abolitionist and with that, I want to bring to light the corrupt system that is the prison industrial complex aka 21st century slavery. In an attempt to do that, I have started to interview men and women that have been recently released from prison, and how they have been able to stay out. These stories are meant to give suggestions and support to men and women that find post prison release difficult. My first entry into this column is to talk with Tony. I spoke with him earlier this year for the piece called, “Living Life: Crime, Bikers, Prison, and the Future.” He and I talked about his life and how he got snared by the criminal justice system. For this interview, Tony spoke about the challenges of not violating and living a normal life.

When I came out of prison my parole office told me right after I walked out the gate, “I wasn’t gonna make it.” I get in the car and he said, “You aint gonna make it.” 

The day you get out, take me into that experience

The prison admin put you into what’s called “S time” which means you can’t do anything but stay in your cell and go to chow. That’s a week before you get out. The day you get you get out, the guards will come around midnight and take you to R&R, which is receive and release, a discharge place. At 7:00am, they cuff you up, take you in a van and drive you to the gate, give you $200.00 gate money, and send you on your way. I paroled in a tank top, shorts, and flip flops. My parole officer picked me up at the gate.

The crazy thing is, if my parole officer wouldn’t had picked me up, they would have bought me a bus ticket out of my gate money to Frisco and I would have gotten there looking around asking, “What do I do now?”

What was it like leaving prison the final time?

I will say I was nervous. I had been in prison for 11 years. I hadn’t seen the streets.. It was the little things like phones. When I went in, flip phones had just came out. Now, everything is on your phones like little computers. So I didn’t know how to function. The night before I was talking with my cellie that had been down for 32 years, trying to figure out what do I do. He suggested make a plan. And in that plan the first thing to do was to find housing, second thing was to find a job to keep the housing, then a vehicle, and finally a woman. Most guys when they get out, they go straight to the dope and the pussy because they don’t have a plan.

What was the conversation with the parole officer?

I really didn’t talk to him after he made that comment. The only thing I asked him is to stop at a Denny’s to get some pancakes because in the joint they don’t have real sugar. After leaving the parole office I got some clothes and called around to the half houses if they had room.

Is it difficult getting into a halfway house?

Extremely. Halfway houses are not governed by the state, so it’s not a requirement that they take you. I called prob 10 of them and none of them had rooms. So I kept calling and ended up finding one.

What was your first 30 days out?

Just learning how to be social again. I hadn’t spoke with a female or a regular citizen in years. I was trying to remember how to be socialable , how to communicate, how to act… I found a job at a construction company and then got my first check and it was on from there.

You’re going from making 45 cent an hour to real money, did you have a moment where you said, “Damn?”

I felt proud that I earned it. I didn’t steal it or rob anybody for it, it was mine. So I bought some tattoo equipment…

Invest in yourself. 

Yeah and so I started doing tattoos. That’s how I met my old lady.  A month later we moved in together.

So sounds like things are going well…

But then I got back into doing dope. I was enforcing for a drug dealer. I was having a tough time socializing with people and I just fell into using again. After a couple weeks of working, I found out that I couldn’t stay at the halfway house anymore, so I moved in with my lady. Things were tough with me and my parole officer because he was a former member of a gang unit. He saw that I was a former gang member, so he did everything he could to make my life hard. My place was raided by the gang unit ..

They were looking for dope, money, and guns?

Yep, dope, money, and guns. He wouldn’t even allow me to transfer to back home to Kansas. Things got rough and I started using again. I didn’t want to be there anymore. I was tired of fighting with my parole officer, things just got real difficult, so I started enforcing for this lady that was selling meth. Anytime I needed some, she would feed me. It got so bad, I got my old lady doing it because I didn’t feel comfortable. Soon after, she said this is enough, we need to stop. I looked at my life and we made a plan and got out of there. Plus, the cops knew what I was into and they were closing in on me.

How did the police know? Was somebody telling?

Yeah. When you come to a guys house to collect money, he may call the cops and say I was trying to rob him. One day, a police officer pulled me over and said, “Look, we know what’s up. Shut it down or you are going away.” So I did, walked away from it. The lady I worked for got busted a month and a half later by the same cop.

When did things start to ease up?

It hasn’t. We all struggle. When I figured out how to adjust, I started to understand. When someone knocks into me they are not doing it out of disrespect. I learned how to do certain things like use my phone, get my drivers licence, get my vehicle… It all started falling into place. My lady, my friends.. they all made it eaiser for me because they kept me in line.

What is the importance of having a plan when you get out?

When you have a plan, it focuses your mind on something.  Most guys parole to the dope house. When they get out, they have the gate money and they will pick up a quarter ounce, a hooker, and get a motel room. After that, you have no money, you’re back on the streets, so what do you do?

It’s like they are setting muthafuckas up automatically to come back in. You ever feel like that?

Yes. I seen a guy get out the day before Christmas, violate, and he came back five days later. It’s ridiculous. What people don’t understand is that when you get a parole officer, their main job is not to guide you through society, but to bust you when you fuck up. Think about it: the parole officers have  at least 25 guys on their caseload, so if they send back two or three, it makes their case load easier.

What keeps you from reoffending today?

To be honest, I don’t think I can make it inside anymore. I can’t live that lifestyle anymore. It’s like if you are starving and someone gives you a steak dinner, you can’t go back to starving, you gotta eat. I want to be happy, maybe have another child. (Tony looks around at the people walking around happy, with strollers) I want what these people got. I don’t want the prison bars. What’s helped me is staying out of the dope areas and staying away from the dumb asses.

If you could talk to the California Bureau of Prisons, what are three things you would suggest to them to stem recidivism?

I would tell them to create more programs for education. I would also tell them instead of sending a drug addict to prison, send them to rehab. Move the mental health patients out of prison, they don’t need to be there. And finally, support and rehabilitation. You can’t expect a guy who has been fighting and killing people in prison to be released to the world and function normally. There needs to be readjustment centers for guys that have been locked up for ten, twenty years.

How difficult has it been getting around the box on job applications?

Well those jobs really don’t pay you shit anyway. I have always done construction because those jobs have always hired felons anyway. People use the box as an excuse. There are jobs out there to be found.

Anything you want to say to the brothers getting out?

Make a plan before you get out, not when you get out and stick to that plan. If you don’t, you’re gonna go through the revolving door and be back in prison.

If you like this check out this other piece by LeRon.