The world is no longer your home. Your community has been stripped down, its bones reassembled. Construction crews have raised new structures along once-familiar streets. But that’s not as jarring as the change you see in people. Social nuances have transformed; scammers have altered their methods; technology has produced bubbles of social isolation.
Sometimes when Leonna Rose is at the store, someone from her past will tap her shoulder. “Leonna, is that you?”
Outwardly, Leonna looks similar to her former self after a little over two decades of incarceration, but her memory has blocked out a lot. Mostly people. Repression was a coping mechanism, she explains. At the beginning of her sentence, she had decided, “Either I’m going to stress myself out, because you know I have my daughter, and the circumstances of my crime, or I’m going to do my time and just forget the outside world. But by doing that, I actually lost a lot of my memory.”
The faces of friends, acquaintances, and even family have become unfamiliar. “They faded away. In my mind, they just disappeared.”
Imagine the trepidation in returning to a place you once called home, only to find it unrecognizable.
“I fear people out here more than they would actually have to fear the people that’s incarcerated,” says Leonna. For instance, how does she safely navigate the nuances of online banking and credit cards? How does she trust people to steer her through a fiscal system she has never used before?
The weekend after her release, she went to a family reunion. It was the first time in over twenty years that she was seeing her immediate and extended family. During her sentence, few had visited, partly due to their own perceptions of the prison environment. At the reunion, they apologized and explained that it was just too emotionally difficult to see her in there. And for them, life went on.
Leonna displays a detached tone when she talks about the absence of her family during incarceration. Life went on for her, too. But down to brass tacks, the reunion triggered a deep sense of loss.“It was hurtful,” she admits. “I was distraught, crying because I couldn’t remember none of them.”
Of course, there was someone Leonna could never forget: her daughter, now twenty-two years old. She was only an infant at the time of the trial and sentencing. During Leonna’s initial reentry, her daughter and her two (soon to be three) grandchildren lived with her.
In heated moments, her daughter reminds her of what happened years ago; the past and all its consequences remain a stinging wound, it seems. In vague details, Leonna sketches the background of the crime: “I was abused,” she explains. “I took matters into my own hands.”
The mother-daughter relationship is complex. Leonna has faced the consequences of her past and now endeavors to share what she learned the hard way.
“[My daughter] used to call me heartless,” Leonna recounts. “It’s not that I don’t have a heart. It’s I want [her] to see the bigger picture, you know?” Leonna advises her daughter with the clarity of hindsight. “This is why you’re so angry…You ain’t had your mother, you ain’t had your father.”
Leonna does not feel that her sentencing was unjust and reflects on its impact with distance. “It happened. You can’t take it back,” she says. “A human life can never be given back.”
She understands her daughter’s anger but also admonishes her against making the same mistakes. “You’re giving up your whole life all for emotions,” she cautions, “[And] I gave up my whole life defending you.”
Where her family was inaccessible, Leonna found a community among her fellow incarcerated women. “No matter how much family support you have, at the end of the day, those that were inside with you will understand more. The people that commit crimes and become incarcerated…they become your family.”
As opposed to male facilities, the women’s facility where Leonna was held had a group home feel to it. Still, men’s prisons can set the tone for how all prisoners are viewed and treated.
“Shit rolls downhill,” Leonna quips. “If something happens in the men’s jail, no matter what, even if it never happens in a female jail, it automatically affects us too.”
She asserts that her mind never became institutionalized. “I basically lived life inside as if I was home.” She took her jobs and training in prison seriously and used her time wisely. For eleven years, she taught life skills trainings on income taxes, stocks, and bonds. She obtained her Bachelor’s degree and vocational training in welding and metal fabrication. She knows how to build computers and software and publish using a printing press.
In the end, all of this made it easier for her return.
But still, on the outside, the dynamics are different. On the outside, the former offender is an outsider. On the outside, people will call every returning citizen by the same name: “ex-con.”
“They feel that people incarcerated are literally in a box. We don’t know anything, or we haven’t learned…No, actually people in prison are smarter than the people outside in society,” Leonna says, referring to how many people in prison are reading, obtaining certifications and degrees, and seizing opportunities that did not exist for them before incarceration. And the experience itself, that bears its own wisdom.
Upon release, Leonna got a job with a call center in customer service. Then her employer did the criminal background check, and Leonna was let go the same week she was hired. Next was the temp agency, where she retained a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy as far as the criminal record went.
“How can people reenter society and live a normal life with that one thing hanging over your head?” she asks. It’s that recurring theme in reentry: How do I move on if the rest of society can’t see beyond my past and see me, who I am, who I have become, what I’ve learned?
But Leonna is a nose-to-the-grindstone type. Determined to work, she eventually landed a job with a metal fabrication company situated in an old factory in Lackawanna, NY. She also has developed skills in roofing, siding, and flooring. She holds her own in a male-dominated field. In this highly competitive environment, Leonna says,“As a female, you have to work harder.”
Even beyond the workplace, Leonna must contend with other people’s perceptions of her as a woman and a formerly incarcerated person.
“The stereotype from males [in] dealing with someone who has been locked up for twenty-two years is not a reaction of how you’re doing or, ‘God bless you, glad to see you’re out,’” she explains. “It’s more on a sexual level…Like, ‘You’re female, you did all this time. Like oh my goodness, she hasn’t been touched in so many years, so I don’t want to deal with her.’”
Such attitudes have made it difficult to reintegrate socially. Between parole, finding an apartment, getting a car, maintaining her job, and discerning whom she can trust, Leonna tends to seclude herself. She admits, “To me, the social life is really on the back burner.”
As for her support system back at the prison, Leonna stays in touch. She offers advice to those who are approaching their release, and she uses Facebook to reach out to people. “I can always move forward, and always look back,” she says.
Afterword: A few days after our interview, Leonna had an appointment with her parole officer. As she waited for her meeting, she remembered that she had one of her roofing tools on her. Knowing that the state would recognize the tool – a star knife – as a weapon and a parole violation, she hid it under a rug in the waiting area. All of it was caught on tape.
Leonna’s violation was enough to send her back to prison. She was sent to Erie County Correctional Facility where she awaited her hearing. It was almost a month before she was able to meet with her public defense attorney, only days before her hearing.
Parole violations are considered by administrative judges, not juries. Hearings are not trials and therefore the decision is made without opposing testimonies or letters of support from the community. The judge determined to revoke Leonna’s parole and sent her back to prison, where she is completing another year of her sentence.