Foster care and prison are systems that unfortunately go hand in hand in many people’s lives. These two broken systems continue a vicious cycle of addiction, abuse, violence and neglect.
Like so many exiting the foster care system, I was faced with a tough choice: sign myself into a shelter or figure out life on my own. I was living in a group home and on my 18th birthday, given two trash bags, $70 and told to leave. Given that I lacked an education, adequate job training and housing, I chose to focus on the same criminal activity that I perpetrated since I was 12 years old. It wasn’t long after turning 18 that I was caught and placed in prison for 2 years. Upon my release, I was again faced with the same lack of options, I could go back to what had worked to provide easy money or I could do something different. I chose the something “different,” follow my dream to become a commercial diver. I am now on track to have life-long stability and be able to pursue any goal. I attribute being where I am to all the people who entered my life offering love and support.
Statistics suggest 1 out of 4 foster youth end up in prison within two years of turning 18. This suggests not enough support is presented for someone exiting foster care. Faced with tough choices, youth exiting care sometimes take a path that leads to incarceration. These youth, myself included, make choices that seem like the only available option and are then punished for these mistakes. Like exiting foster care, exiting prison can be a daunting event. The same lack of support is the number one issue for formerly incarcerated people. They also face being labeled a “criminal” which can be just a crippling as having it tattooed across your forehead.
The stigma that surrounds a former convict, someone who has paid the debt asked of them by society, follows like a cloud of judgment and negativity wherever they go. That stigma places a barrier to accessing affordable housing, securing a job and moving on with their life once released. This results in high recidivism rates.
I often do not bring up my own history of incarceration until I am sure the person I’m conversing with won’t pass judgment based on mistakes of my youth. The fear of rejection is a powerful emotion; most of us want to be accepted. Until we can lose this misconception about a portion of our population, we cannot truly begin to rehabilitate those in need.
Life continues, whether you participate or not. But to truly become “free” and not bound by the chains of your former self, one has to break loose the bonds that kept you imprisoned, to shed the conditioning that led to society locking you away. Freedom is earned by those who want it and accept that life will have its challenges, especially when burdened with a difficult past. The stigma of foster care and prison can hold you back, or you can put forth energy to make a change and refuse to be defined by a label.