As a parolee of the state prison two years ago, it wouldn’t be easy to have a pinnace year — of that I’m sure.
Yet someone who faced and conquered as many challenges as Jason did in the year he was released from incarceration deserved a great year.
Now 36, Jason was my Little Brother in the Big Brother/Big Sister program. Released from state prison 18 months ago, he spent last Christmas with us. While Jason cooked us breakfast, we talked. In a reflective moment he said, “I’m not going back to prison or jail. That part of my life is behind me. I’ve got a plan to continue working, buy a car, and get an apartment. 2017 will be my pinnacle year.”
I’ve known him since he was nine. That was the kind of determination he needed to voice to have a pinnacle year as a parolee. And listening to him say that, I remember smiling. Feeling good. Being full of hope.
And yet, I knew the challenges were there — staying employed as a former felon was uppermost on the list of difficulties. Would Jason look like a Popular Science magazine reader trying to build the Hubble telescope. Could he surpass all the obstacles facing him?
He began 2017 on an upbeat.
After the holidays, Jason returned to the half-way house where he lived since first released from prison six months prior. He stayed until he could take it no more.
John, the man who founded the half-way house some years back did so when he, himself, exited prison. John knew the system and those who participated in it from first-hand experience. He put together the necessary funding and local official support and started taking in parolees when they exited from prison and needed oversight.
Jason recognized that John helped him get out of prison on his parole date. John provided Jason a prison-release address, identification, a medical card, the connection to a job placement firm, and anger management and substance abuse classes (required by the state). Without those things, Jason would not have been a parolee and released early from his sentence. He would have stayed at the penitentiary another year.
Jason didn’t like John. John insisted the parolees miss their paid shifts at the factory and, instead, do “volunteer work” to support the non-profit designation under which the halfway house was formed or help put money in John’s pocket.
Jason also complained the $125 he paid to the residence each week was excessive. The half-way house, a broken-down structure in a low-income and violent neighborhood, provided beds for eight men. They bought their own food, which they cooked for themselves in a shared a kitchen. Jason slept for a month on a sofa until another parolee left and Jason moved to that bed, It was infested with bedbugs.
There was little recourse for the parolees. John always held the upper hand with the parole officers to whom they reported.
The first few months as a parolee, John became Jason’s nemesis. John stood in the way of his having a pinnacle year. In February, Jason left from the half-way house and moved to a homeless men’s shelter.
He took the first step out.
Jason found the shelter’s rules and arrangements easier to navigate. A group of local churches took in the homeless men offering them a bed, two meals, and a connection to social service support. In exchange, the administrators required the men to attend church and leave the shelter during the day. As long as Jason worked the day shift at the factory, his life at the shelter went smoothly.
When I visited Jason in early spring, he looked good and sounded well. He didn’t smell like he was homeless. A staff person at the social service agency helped Jason organize himself and set up some life objectives. He looked like his life was still on track — keeping away from activities that put him in prison, staying employed.
Fitting together the pieces of the Hubble Telescope would take time for anyone, even the astronomical engineer.
When Jason was 20, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and given medication. In prison, he continued that medication. When released, instead of waiting six months to a year to see a psychiatrist via the medical system, John at the half-way house encouraged my partner and I to help Jason by paying for a private doctor. I took him to that appointment and met him after. Jason told me the doctor re-diagnosed him as anxiety-prone — not schizophrenic — and prescribed him a low-dose of Ambien. When it put Jason to sleep in the middle of lunch, he stopped taking it.
In March, my partner and I received a call from Jason. He was in the psych ward of the local hospital and would be under observation for a few days. He had an episode at the shelter. Instead of arguing or fighting as he would have in past years, he went to the medical facility and checked himself in. My partner paid Jason a visit, but it was awkward talking amidst other patients and their visitors in a public waiting room.
We met up with Jason two months later. The manufacturing company changed his shift to third. He had a difficult time getting the necessary sleep and leaving the shelter every day as required. He left the factory job and became employed part-time by a landscaper. When the shelter closed for the warmer months he would stay with a guy he’d met through the landscaping work.
After a year out, he was beating the odds.
On July 21, Jason hit his one-year anniversary. He’d been out of prison for a year. He’d beat the odds so far. He’d stayed employed, managed some difficult situations, kept a roof over his head, and stayed out of trouble.
To celebrate, we invited him to Wisconsin for the weekend. I picked him up at a McDonalds not far from the shelter. He had no backpack like he usually carried — just the clothes he wore, which smelled as if he’d worn them for weeks without washing them. He said he was well, but everything seemed half a bubble off. Usually excited with stories to tell, his half of the conversation ended quickly. He seemed evasive or just unclear.
A month later, Jason called to say he’d received his Social Security Supplemental Income check. I didn’t know anything about it. He told me the social worker at the shelter encouraged him to file for it based on his psychiatric disability. With that secure income, he would try to return to Peoria by way of Bloomington, a city 45 minutes away from his home town. It was where the busses ran from Chicago and employment seemed more certain.
I was quiet, concerned.
During his twenties, Jason received supplemental income prior to prison because of his diagnosis of schizophrenia. He did not work. By his own admission, he had little incentive to do anything and fell in with the wrong crowd. Misdemeanor arrests peppered his life. Now, again, he was on medication, receiving government support, and without any real structure in his life. I didn’t think any of it spoke well for his future.
He chose a path. Was it the wrong one?
Since August, Jason and I exchanged a few text messages and phone calls. He took a bus from the northern Chicago suburb, where he lived since his release from prison, and moved to a homeless shelter in Bloomington. On the one hand, it was a big step for him to make that move on his own and I was proud of him. He was moving forward on the trajectory he wanted — to get back home to Peoria. On the other hand ….
On Oct 11, I texted, “How are you?” And he responded, “I’m going this week to see mom in Peoria. Had permission issues but been working with DHS.” Dealing with the Department of Human Services indicated he was still a parolee. But Jason never arrived in Peoria.
I texted him on November 9, 13, and 21 and today, I called. I received nothing in response.
Now, at the end of 2017, I’m not sure it was Jason’s pinnacle year. I’m having a hard time reaching him and that causes me to worry. Jason may have tried to handle more than he could, made bad choices, or perhaps the directions for assembling the Hubble telescope were not enclosed in the box.
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Judy O Haselhoef, a social artist who writes and travels and author of “GIVE & TAKE: Doing Our Damnedest NOT to be Another Charity in Haiti,” blogs regularly at her website,www.JOHaselhoef.com.
Copyright @2017: If you’d like to use any part of it (up to 200 words), please give full attribution and this website, www.JOHaselhoef.com.