Captured by Leah Rhyne
“Adulting is hard.”
So say a million internet memes, usually plastered across a picture of a wrinkly dog lying face-down on the sidewalk. And it’s true: we all have rough days, managing our jobs, our bills, and our kids. I know I’ve contemplated the pain of “adulting” on an afternoon when the drain is clogged, the dogs are making a mess, and my child is down with a migraine. It is hard to be the bearer of responsibility, no doubt about it.
But for some, the very idea of “adulting” (a privileged term if ever we’ve created one) is completely foreign, an utterly broken concept. How can a man “adult” when he’s just emerged from 21 years in prison into a world full of new technology and oldprejudices? How can he navigate the ups and downs of finding a job, a home, a new life? Even with help, it can be overwhelming.
Chris is a graduate of Turning Leaf, and this is the story of how he succeeds, one day at a time.
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“When the judge handed me 300 months, I thought, man, what is 300 months?” Chris went to the legal library in prison to unravel that mystery, and when he realized it translated to 25 years, all he could think was, “Man, I don’t know how I’m going to do it.”
“You’re thinking about your family,” he says. “Your mom, your dad, your kids. I’m wondering who I’m going to lose.” Plus you suddenly find yourself waking up in prison, day in and day out. There, you have to navigate politics and alliances, who you’ll spend time with, and what gang, if any, you’ll join.
Chris survived by trying to stay outside of the fray and keeping his head down. He went to work and took classes. He worked out. He focused on trying to better himself.
Slowly, the years passed. As Chris approached his release at the end of his 21st year, he grew nervous. He would be remanded to Charleston, South Carolina, across the country from where he grew up in California, far from family and friends. He wouldn’t know anyone. How would he be able to re-start his life, completely on his own?
Now, he looks at that distance as a blessing. It gave him a chance to rely on himself. He had to stay in a halfway house for the first six months, but then he wanted his own place. Had he been in California, it would have been too easy to stay with family or old friends (even a female friend). He recognized that would have been an unnecessary complication, and one that could have caused trouble. “You just got through sharing a room with somebody for 21 years,” he says, laughing. “You need your own space.” And as for the ladies, he says, “after 21 years in prison, you’re not ready to jump into a relationship.”
Questions weighed him down, though. “Can I get a job? Can I get my own place? When you get out the probation officers and the government make all these promises, like they’ll help you. They told me they’d give me money for rent and all that but they didn’t.” Chris was on his own.
He’d been in the halfway house for a week, looking for a job without success, when another resident told him about the Turning Leaf Project. That resident was already a student here, and, says Chris, “he told me it was the best place for me. I’d get all the support I’d need.” Chris interviewed at Turning Leaf, was accepted, and dove into the program.
It was daunting at times. “The first few weeks, the classroom was kind of a stumbling block,” he says. “The skits and stuff. It was something new for sure. But it was a good experience. It allowed me to see things before they happen, to manage situations.”
His hardest moment came when he had to talk to the class about his aunt. She’d just passed away after a long battle with cancer, and he hadn’t been able to see her before she died. “She passed right when I got out,” he says. “She didn’t want to see anybody, but I’d have tried to see her. We FaceTimed once or twice. We used to text every day but when those texts stopped coming I knew it was a limited time. Before you know it, it was over.” Talking to the class about it was hard, but he held his composure. “I did what I had to do. I couldn’t let her death effect what I’m trying to do here.”
He loved the environment of Turning Leaf. “People here show you a lot of respect,” he says. “Then they look for you to show it back. It’s not like in prison, where respect is a one-way street.” To Chris, Turning Leaf was “a breath of fresh air. Seeing what it’s like to be in the workforce, when you’ve never been in it before. It feels good to work a job and pay the bills.”
Since graduating from Turning Leaf, Chris has moved on to a new job with an electric company. “It’s got good people and it’s a good organization. They pay me enough to support myself.” He has his own apartment but had to use all his savings to get it. Still, it’s all his.
Life isn’t without challenges, of course. Something as simple as getting a driver’s license can be enormously complicated after prison. Chris had to go all the way to California to get a printout of his driving record since they couldn’t get a copy of it in South Carolina. Even now, his license is still suspended due to an alias he used decades ago. He’s waiting to hear what he needs to do to fix it, but these things take time. In the meantime, his ride to and from work costs $18 each way through Lyft. Turning Leaf is helping him pay that expense.
He uses the skills he learned both through a program in prison and in Turning Leaf to navigate the day-to-day challenges. He’s learned how to manage expectations and situations to avoid arguments as best as he can. “My expectation is that we all have opinions,” he says. “But some people think your opinion doesn’t count. You have to manage a situation so you don’t argue with them. Arguments lead to you saying something you really don’t mean. Now I just say, ‘You might be onto something’ instead of debating.”
Recently, a minor disagreement with a coworker came up during his 90-day review. His boss said she thought he had been too aggressive. Chris felt like he was in the right, and he worried the negative feedback would affect his raise. Perhaps, in the past, he’d have tried to argue his point, to prove he was right. However, this time, he sat back, evaluated his situation, decided to hear his boss out. He came away from the review with his raise.
“Without Turning Leaf it may have been different,” he says. “I don’t let a lot bother me now. I felt picked on, and I thought she was going to use it as an excuse not to give me my raise, but she was just giving me something to work on, which was cool. I might have sounded aggressive to that guy, or maybe he took it wrong. I’m learning from it.”
He gets feedback from females, too, saying he doesn’t show enough emotions. “They don’t understand,” he says. “Doing 21 years, you don’t show emotions. You’ve got to control them, keep them in check. I’m trying to work on it, but it ain’t going to happen overnight.”
Since getting out of prison nine months ago, he’s gone to California three times. The first trip, he saw his father for the first time in 21 years. Kidney and liver problems had left him weak and frail, and Chris is trying to help him get back on track with his treatments. He’s improving steadily now.
Chris also got to see his daughter and her baby girl. “It was a happy moment,” he says. “She had a big smile; she’d missed her dad. We have bond. I was the first person who saw her when she came out. I cut the cord.” Now he has a chance to continue building on that bond, visiting whenever he can. He’s a proud grandfather. “She’s a lot,” he says of his granddaughter. “She’s real beautiful. She looks like her mom and her dad. She’s real active, trying to sit up when she’s only three months old. It was hard to leave, but now I’m getting all these memories back.”
Life after prison has its ups and downs, but Chris is ready for it. “I see the responsibility now,” he says. “Back in the day, I didn’t think the responsibility was mine. I was gonna do what I wanted to do. But I see it now. If I don’t do what I need to do, it can be a real risky situation.”
“I’m a man that came from a place where you sometimes don’t make it. Anything can happen there. But life still goes on, and it doesn’t stop when you go to prison. But I’m a straight up guy. I’m forward and honest. My word is my bond, and respect has to be mutual.”
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We’re so proud of how far you’ve come, Chris. We’re thrilled you get to spend the rest of your life making new memories!