A LOOK INSIDE REENTRY
A CHANGE OF PERSPECTIVE
By Joseph L. Moore, Jr.
Joseph L. Moore, Jr. is a Restore Justice Future Leader Apprentice. Joseph served 26 years in prison for a crime he committed when he was 21 years old. While in prison, he developed a knack for writing. That knack soon grew into a love, if not an obsession, after he realized that the written word would be his most effective means of communication. Joseph’s love of writing did not wane after his release from prison. He is currently working on an essay series titled “A Look Inside Reentry.” The following essay, “A Change of Perspective,” is the first essay in the series.
Before I was released from prison, I used to wonder, “What does success look like for someone who has spent more than 20 years incarcerated?” I heard stories from people who had been released from prison and subsequently returned, and saw the images the media used to depict successful reentry to society. Due to that, I had grown accustomed to hearing the narratives and seeing the images of formerly incarcerated middle-aged men, whose bodies had been unnaturally contorted by decades of confinement in small concrete and steel cells, bent over push brooms in dusty warehouses, over conveyor belts in poultry factories, over grease traps in fast food restaurants, and over steering wheels of semi trucks. Those narratives and accompanying images of life after imprisonment were so prevalent that, at least for me at that time, they were emblematic of success. Please, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that those jobs don’t represent some level of success. What I am saying is that while I sat in that dark, dank cell, whose barred window only provided its occupants with a view of a patch of gray cracked concrete, it was difficult to imagine myself living beyond the restrictive expectation that society has for those of us who have been impacted by the criminal legal system. So with that being the case, I had set my mind on becoming a truck driver.
I was released from prison on June 14, 2022. My plan was to get my driver’s license within two weeks and my Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) within four months. But things didn’t go as planned. My driver’s license had been revoked in 1994, 28 years ago. Although I knew I would have to go through a process to have my license reinstated, never in my wildest dreams, especially considering that the infractions didn’t involve DUIs or accidents, could I have imagined that it would take six months of writing letters, being interviewed, and a $500 fee before my license was reinstated. It took another four months to complete the course to earn my CDL. Within the 10 months that spanned the day of my release and the day I earned my CDL, I had the good fortune to attend one of Restore Justice’s (RJ) Returning Citizens Network (RCN) meetings.
Once a month, RJ’s system-impacted staff host a meeting for RCN members. The RCN is composed of returned citizens who have mostly served a protracted period of time in prison – 15, 20, 25, or more years.
When I arrived at the RCN meeting, the air was filled with joyous chatter. Everywhere I looked people were smiling and opening their arms to pull someone into a warm embrace. After about 10 minutes, everyone drifted toward the middle of the room where about 20 chairs had been arranged in a circle. When we were all seated, we began to check-in. I listened as each person stated their name, how they were feeling, and their occupation. I had expected to be in the midst of people who worked in menial labor or construction, or as janitors or in lawn care, mostly employing their brawn not their brains. After all, it had been impressed upon me that that was our lot in life. Therefore, I was beyond pleasantly surprised to discover sprinkled amongst this contingent of returned citizens, system-impacted people who use their minds and lived experience to earn a living. There was a policy associate, a program manager, a violence interrupter, a caseworker supervisor, a landlord, and an owner of a dog grooming business. As one person after another spoke, drawing the circle to a close like the ring on a recently downloaded app, my mind, like the domed roof of a planetarium, slowly opened revealing scores of scintillating possibilities. By the end of the RCN meeting, I had become acutely aware that I could transcend society’s limited expectations and pursue the dreams I had secretly nursed when I was in prison.
For the last 15 of my 26 years of imprisonment, I worked diligently to cultivate my mind and my writing skills with the far-flung hope of being not just a writer, but a writer who earned a living writing and talking about his experiences with the carceral system. After the RCN meeting, I started back journaling almost daily, honing my skills, or as I like to say, “sharpening my pen.” I was awaiting an opportunity to write something, anything, for a publication or organization. Sure enough, opportunities came. I was asked to speak at a Resentencing Task Force hearing, for which I wrote a short speech. I was also invited to speak at Restore Justice’s Impacted Excellence gala, for which I wrote a much longer speech. The seeds of possibility had been planted, and almost a year to the day that I attended that RCN meeting, those possibilities became a reality. For the past six months, I’ve been an apprentice in Restore Justices’s Future Leaders Apprentice Program. And for the past two weeks, from my desk in our office in the River North neighborhood, I’ve been working on this blog post.
Truly, if I hadn’t attended that RCN meeting, which I had attended for the sole purpose of basking in the warm glow of familiarity that is casted by being in the presence of people with whom I share a lived experience, and met returned citizens who have boldly defied society’s expectations, it’s possible, although I’m no longer in prison, that my perspective of the world, and my place in it, would’ve still been defined by my view of that patch of gray cracked concrete.