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The sun shines over a wire fence topped with concertina razor wire
Photo by miwa_in_oz on Depositphotos

I paced the floor, taking shallow, rapid breaths. My heart was racing. I knew my name would be called soon, around 10 a.m. I had urinated at least four times in the past hour and was feeling the need to go again.

What if something goes wrong?

I had seen it happen before with other men who were scheduled to be released. Sometimes their ride never showed up. Sometimes a detainer was placed on them by another law enforcement agency and the police arrested them right after they left the prison. In the most heartbreaking of circumstances, loved ones got in car wrecks on the way to pick them up.

My anxious thoughts slowed when I heard the golden words: “Pernice, to the rotunda.” I took a deep breath, the kind you hold for a few seconds as you process something momentous. Then I grabbed my clear, plastic bag that contained my well-worn orange shower shoes, toothbrush, toothpaste and deodorant, and headed for the rotunda.

This was goodbye to prison. I was off to the unknown. A whole new world. A society I had been hidden from for 13 years.

The first steps

As I approached the main building, I felt as if I was in slow motion. I looked into the eyes of every person I passed. I wasn’t sure whether to smile or remain stoic. Some people weren’t leaving for decades; I did not want to make them feel envious or sad.

I took in the faded blue paint of chow hall, then the brownish brick recreation building where I had worked cleaning weight equipment the last five years, and finally the long stretch of the school where I attended college. Then I came to the biggest and most intimidating building: administration.

As I entered the double steel doors for the last time, I started to feel a sense of loss. I should have been excited about freedom, but the fear of the unknown created a tsunami of apprehension inside me.

I turned in my keys at the last window on the secure side of the gray metal bars. “Good luck,” the corrections officer told me.

But in that moment I did not need luck. I needed to focus on the tears pooling in my eyes. I was overwhelmed. I was happy, afraid, anxious and excited. I didn’t know whether to cry or smile. But I kept my emotions in check. I was still in a medium security prison after all.

I entered the strip-out room next. Why did I need to get naked in front of a corrections officer and a security camera before leaving? I will never know.

As I stripped off my prison gray uniform, the officer happily handed me my dress-out clothing. The blue jeans were nice and soft, and felt almost foreign. I struggled to put my brown belt through the loops; it had been a long time since I owned a belt. The light blue polo shirt brought color to my appearance and my soul. Then came the white memory foam shoes. It felt like I was putting my feet into a cloud.

The new clothing made me feel totally different and strange — but it also moved me.

A local church had donated a bag of clothing specifically for my transition. They cared about my release and wanted me to feel confident. When strangers care about you, it helps you care about yourself. I felt like I mattered.

EnteringWonderland

After I signed the final papers, I crossed the threshold with a packet of documents in hand into the outside world. A group of U.S. military veterans were waiting to give me a ride to my next destination — I had served in Iraq and had been active in the veteran community in prison.

I paused before we exited the reinforced sliding glass doors. I looked over at the officer escorting me for permission to step out — after 13 years, I had become accustomed to following directions and asking for permission.

“You’re good,” the officer said, nodding reassuringly.

Standing outside of the concertina wire fences, I froze. Was I actually about to leave? I inhaled deeply.

My two escorts wanted to ask questions, but my brain was foggy. I got into the back seat of the gray SUV and we departed. I looked out the window to see if any of my friends were in the prison yard for recreation time. I had hoped to wave at someone I knew one last time, but I couldn’t make out any faces.

As soon as we hit the road, I was hit with sensory overload. Buildings had changed. The flashy colors of the storefronts were foreign to me. I was not used to so many vibrant color schemes. Everything in prison had been drab or neutral. I felt like I was a character in “Alice in Wonderland.”

I hardly recognized many of the cars on the road. They were sleek and aerodynamic. Some were boxy — I later learned that those were electric cars. As the cars sped by, I saw several drivers who looked like they were talking to themselves.

My fellow veterans wanted to chat, but I felt as though my body had been frozen in a cryogenic chamber. My brain hurt. I was exhausted and nauseous.

An amazing first meal

Finally, we stopped. We pulled into Waffle House, and I scanned the parking lot before I got out. I was not from Columbia, Missouri, so I wasn’t worried about anyone recognizing me, but I was uneasy.

I opened the door and entered the restaurant. In the chow hall at prison, you know who is who. You sat with your group, and you could easily identify friends and foe. Your group was your safety net. In the Waffle House, I didn’t have that. I was with two older veterans who would not have been able to fend off a threat.

So much was going through my mind, it was tough to sort things out and go with the flow. I slid into the booth, and the waitress approached. She was nice to me. She asked how I was doing and what I wanted to drink. This was much different than what I had been accustomed to.

I stumbled over my words as I ordered orange juice, which I had not had in a long time. In prison, it can be used as a precursor to make “hooch,” or homemade alcohol. But here I was drinking the real stuff — and from a glass! It was hard and smooth, and had a sheen to it. I loved feeling the glass in my hand.

For my first meal, I ordered steak and eggs over medium, with hash browns and toast. In prison, there are no fried foods, real eggs or even skirt steak.

When the waitress brought the steak knife to the table, I froze for a couple of seconds, eyeing the shiny, steel blade. In prison, it would have been “dangerous contraband.”

After a second, I accepted the knife and picked it up. I looked around to see if anyone was scared to see me holding the sharp instrument. No. People were just talking and eating.

I kept scanning the restaurant. I looked for potential adversaries, tattoos on people (to identify their gang affiliation), and where the police were at.

I ate my meal slowly. In prison, I was only given about 15 minutes to eat, but here in the Waffle House, I savored each bite. I dipped my toast in the tart, creamy egg yolk. The tangy A1 steak sauce brought back happy memories of the life I once had.

After years of prison food, this was the ultimate comfort food.

Convenience store sticker shock

Later, as we approached Kansas City, we stopped at a roadside convenience store. I hopped out of the van and scanned for familiar faces. How would I handle it if I saw someone I knew? What would I say?

My anxiety was bubbling up like steam in a geyser until I became distracted by the selection of items in the store. I was shocked. One of my companions told me I could get anything I wanted. A drink, trail mix, a candy bar — anything. I couldn’t decide.

As I walked around, I began noticing the prices. Why was a bag of beef jerky $10? Candy bars over $2? I thought canteen prices in prison were bad, but this was ridiculous. I was entering this world with no money. How was I going to make it on the outside?

In the end, I chose a bottle of Coca-Cola and Peanut M&M’s. I hadn’t drunk a Coke in many years because it was not sold in the canteen. Same for the M&M’s.

I felt sticker shock at the total cost: $8.56. I felt guilty for spending so much. I didn’t want my escorts to spend so much money on me when they had already spent so much on this trip. I felt ashamed.

The next phase

In the store, people had passed me by without a thought. That was welcomed, but it was strange to see everyone constantly doing something with their cellphones — texting, talking, watching. So many people were glued to their screens.

Outside, a man was having a conversation, seemingly with air. He was dressed nicely with well-kept brown hair. He did not appear drunk, high or crazy. I noticed he had white plastic things in his ears. I didn’t know what they were. They didn’t have wires attached to them and they didn’t look like hearing aids.

A lot of women were wearing spandex-like pants that left no room for the imagination. I did not want to stare and creep them out, but I was not used to seeing women’s bodies like that. I didn’t know whether to look or avert my eyes.

During my years behind bars, the world had changed so much. Clothing styles had evolved. Technology had grown more sophisticated. I clearly had a lot of catching up to do.

The prison mindset does not magically dissolve upon release. It is something I’ll carry with me while I adapt to this overwhelming life outside. Anxious and excited, I am moving on to the next phase of my new life.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Global Forum Online has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Shon Pernice is a contributing writer for PJP. He is a veteran and a Kansas City native who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom as a combat medic and came home with traumatic brain injury and PTSD. He has been published in Veterans Voices, The Beat Within and Military Magazine. He is a contributing author to the book, "Helping Ourselves By Helping Others: An Incarcerated Men's Survival Guide." Shon was incarcerated in Missouri.