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When you get out of prison, where do you go? Before release, Marlon hoped to move in with his family. But his mother had died, and his siblings were much younger and didn’t know him.
“That has been the biggest disappointment,” he says. “My family hasn’t helped much, except my stepfather. I tried to bond, to hang out, but I had been gone too long. They have a sibling bond, and I don’t.”
“They picked me up from prison and drove me to LA. They gave me a few clothes and some dollars and said, ‘Go live your life.’ My uncle has visited my new apartment; my brothers and sisters have not been there. I doubt they could tell you where I lived if you asked them.”
He tries to stay involved with family, sometimes driving his stepfather, a retired sheriff and legendary bassist in the LA jazz scene, to music gigs, but he doesn’t see any of the others. “They’re busy with their own lives,” he says, although a sister gifted him with a smartphone, which helped once he learned to use it.
In the absence of family support, Marlon found aid in other places. He went into a halfway house for released lifers. Coming out of prison is like coming up from a deep dive; you have to do it slowly. He was going from a life where every move was scheduled, mandated, and observed to a place where days might go by with nothing to do and nobody to see. There would be very little money, a lot of available drugs, and not much support.
Having been away from the world since 1985 wouldn’t make it easier. Marlon had never seen the Internet, never used a cell phone, never had a regular job and hadn’t paid bills in 29 years. “It was like that movie Demolition Man,” he says. “Being frozen and thawed out far in the future.”
The program where he was placed was poorly run by a drug recovery agency who knew little about the problems of parolees. He wasn’t happy there, but it did provide structure and stability, and allow Marlon to take his reentry slowly.
After six months in the halfway house, he was offered a room in a SRO hotel in LA’s skid row, subsidized by a government program. When he arrived there, he spent the first 48 hours in an intense clean-up to make it livable, and he was on his own.
It seems when the world is trying to come to your aid, it’s not easy to know what that aid will look like. Marlon needed work, but jobs are scarce, and a prison record disqualifies you from most of those. Marlon kept looking and picked up some gigs at the LA Coliseum staffing food booths during soccer games. He pursued a Class III drivers’ license so he could drive a bus. Mainly, he focused on Braille.
At Vacaville prison in the 90s, Marlon was recording books on tape for the Blind Project, a nonprofit which was independent of the institution. That lead to a potential life changer: “I saw some guys doing Braille transcribing and asked them what was going on.” Two retired Braillers volunteering at the prison trained him, and he is now pursuing a Braille business.
Knowing how to Braille is not enough; you have to have equipment to do it. Marlon borrowed money from me and others to buy a machine; he got a used computer from my mother, who no longer needed it after she died. I was doubting if I could afford the money for Marlon’s Braille machine, until I received an unexpected payout from my mother’s retirement fund for the exact amount he needed. It has been the best investment I ever made.
He met a woman named Marilyn. “She was leaving work, and I asked her for her autograph. We’ve been hanging out ever since.” She has been “instrumental in getting the Braille business going. She did most of the paperwork for my corporation. Now she’s doing my 501 c application to be a nonprofit.”
Help came from others on the street. One day, Marlon approached an artist in a park on Skid Row where the young man was painting a mural. “We got to talking; I told him my story about the Braille, and he got excited about it. I ran into him two or three times after that. Every time he saw me I was moving ahead: I got a car; I got the Braille machine. Turned out his Mom had a Web radio show, and he gave her my number. She called me and had me on her show, which led to my incorporating and seeking nonprofit status.”
To have a corporation requires a corporate board. I’m on his board along with a woman named Alma, who is the sister of one of Marlon’s old prison cellmates. Alma is a retired Braille transcriber herself, and there aren’t that many of them out here.
Help from agencies
Sometimes you need assistance from government, and being a recently paroled lifer is one of those times. Over two years, Marlon has applied for various assistance. At different times, he has received SSI and food stamps, and now has a partially subsidized studio apartment.
It’s great we have such programs, so I give thanks to the people who fought for and created them, but they are not easy to access. You don’t just walk in and get benefits. For each application, Marlon spent many hours on buses going to various government offices for appointments and evaluations, sometimes many visits for the same benefit. “You can’t get impatient,” he says. “They will set up barriers, but they are doing their job. You have to treat them with respect.”
Help from faith
Marlon is not a very religious person, but he has been open to seeing the value in faith. It helped him to persist and to change.
Early in his sentence, he was approached by Muslim prisoners. “The [Islamic group] was one of the few places you could go and people were not all crazy,” he says. “They talked about positive stuff, presented us as like a brotherhood of humanity.”
Their influence helped him stay clear of the madness of prison life. “Some people inside were gangbangers, others told war stories, and their [dangerous] plans for making money. It was good to find something positive instead.”
Later, some nuns came to the prison to run self-help groups. He took a certificate course to be a lay minister. “They set it up so I had to go through the pastor of their church to verify I was doing the work. I never met him, but I studied and it opened my eyes to a lot of things that I hadn’t had them open to, and I was able to articulate those things.” That education and the nuns’ support helped him to get parole.
I doubt many Healing Path readers are doing long stretches in prison, but I find Marlon’s experience instructive and his success inspiring. Some of it is relevant to all of us. He gave me some of his guidelines for recovering from low places.
- Keep going – Marlon’s been out a little over two years, and some things have been frustrating. He had a good job offer as a Braille transcriber rescinded because of his prison record. Agencies have turned him down for benefits and programs. He trained to drive buses, then the training agency’s bus broke down and they decided not to repair it, so he couldn’t take the licensing test. People tell him they will help in some way, then don’t show up because their own lives are so difficult. His family has largely not been there for him.
Those things haven’t stopped him. If one door closes, he knocks on another, a model we would benefit from following. It might seem you have insoluble problems, or that our whole civilization does with war, oppression and environmental destruction. It may seem there’s nothing we can do. All the doors are closed. But perhaps we haven’t been knocking on the right doors.
Limitations may be real, but they can change. As jazz great Sun Ra said, “All of the possible things have been tried and failed. Now it’s time to try the impossible.” I think Marlon would agree. We don’t know what’s possible until we try.
- Don’t rush. “Sometimes I want things to go faster,” he says, “but then I remember, or people remind me that I’ve come a long way in two years. I came out of the system with nothing. Now I have an apartment, a car, a girlfriend, a business.”
- Believe in yourself – “If you don’t believe in what your ability, nobody else will. You can’t be afraid to share the talents you have.” Not everyone believed in the potential of his Braille business, but he believed, and that belief has carried him through a lot of negativity and temptation. It has brought him a lot of help, because “More people will help you if they see you are helping yourself.”
- Persist but be flexible – You’ve got to have a plan, but be willing to change and revise it often.
All these skills don’t erase the essential pain of a hard life. That pain will be there, but there are also profound rewards. “I can’t get back the 29 years I lost,” Marlon says, “but I will make the most of the time I have left.”
That is all any of us can do, and it can be a lot. It can be enough.
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