Columnist Razvan Sibii: After three decades of prison, looking in a real mirror

  • Eugene Youngblood Submitted photo

Published: 4/19/2021 1:13:05 PM

By Razvan Sibii

When he was 3, Eugene Youngblood's mother went to prison for seven years. When he was 10, his only caretaker died, and he joined a local gang. At 13, he was shot by a rival gang member on the streets of Los Angeles. At 15, he dropped out of school and began dealing cocaine. At 18, he was found guilty of murder in a drug war, even though he was not present when the trigger was pulled. He received a 65-year sentence.

In prison, Youngblood participated in numerous programs, took college classes, was a leader of the Black Prisoners Caucus, and mentored scores of other men. In the words of his lawyer, he became a “shining example of rehabilitation.”

After almost 30 years behind bars, Youngblood received clemency from the governor of Washington state, and he was released last month. I spoke with him on Zoom a few days after he got out, and I asked him about the challenges of reentry into “free society.”

“It’s funny: all of the things I imaged would be difficult were actually pretty easy. And all of the things I thought were going to be pretty easy, or that I didn’t even consider, have been really hard,” Youngblood says.

“When I was released, my friends picked me up and went to go eat breakfast. A couple of hours passed by, and I went to use the bathroom. In the bathroom, I was washing my hands and I looked in the mirror. That was the first time I saw myself in a real mirror in 29 years. Previous to that, I’d been looking in polished steel mirrors. The difference between looking at yourself in polished steel and looking in a real mirror was heartbreaking. I just could see how much I’ve aged. I saw all the grey in my beard, and my hair is no longer there. And I’m thinking, ‘Man, I came to prison as an 18 years old. I was a boy who had been masquerading as a man. And now here I am, I’m 48.’ It made me sad, and I had to take a minute. And I took so long that my friends were like, ‘Hey, are you alright?’ I said, ‘Oh, yeah. Yeah.’”

Another challenge that Youngblood didn’t quite anticipate upon reentry was even more subtle than that posed by glass mirrors: making decisions about everyday small things.

“I was in prison for 29 years, and every day I probably made 20 decisions. Now, I make 1,000 every hour, and it’s overwhelming. I got released on a Friday. On Saturday, I went to the mall with all these people to buy clothes. And they’re like, ‘OK, which ones do you want?’ And I’m getting confused because two things are happening: one, too many choices, and two, I don’t have context for how much these things cost. I don’t know what’s expensive and what’s not. Do jeans cost $80 or do they cost $18?”

“I got so frustrated with all of the choices that I told my friends I needed to use the bathroom and I just went and sat in the little walkway in the mall next to some older woman. The indecisiveness was bothering me because usually I’m so decisive. I’m well-read and I know a lot about all kinds of things. And now I’m trapped in this world where I really don’t know nothing about nothing because I went to prison so young. Ninety percent of my experiences have come through a book or watching something on TV. I don’t have real-life lived experience in everyday things.”

Paradoxically, Youngblood says, at the same time he’s struggling with too many decisions, he’s also struggling with a lack of agency.

“I get out, and all these people have plans and stuff that they want to do with me, but nobody really talked to me about them. So, on one hand, all of the choices are overwhelming. On the other hand, a lot of people want to decide for me. And so I’m trapped in a space like that,” he says.

Youngblood now works with a nonprofit in Washington named the Freedom Project on whose behalf he meets with people who have been system-impacted – people who have been incarcerated, people who are struggling with substance abuse, people who are homeless – and determines what kind of “wraparound services” they need.

“Sometimes people who are traumatized and people who are in the middle of stuff, they don’t really know what they need. And so I listen to them, I take notes, and then I write a report about what I think they need,” he says.

Despite the emotional challenges he recounts, Youngblood is so far having a better post-release experience than many, if not most, other recently released Americans. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, recidivism in the U.S. stands at almost 50% within three years of release, and the unemployment rate among formerly incarcerated people stands at 27%, with poverty being the strongest predictor for re-incarceration. With some 2.3 million people currently incarcerated in this country and countless more who have been incarcerated in their lives, “building back better” cannot, and should not, ignore the needs and the potential of those who have been most impacted by America’s love affair with prisons.

Razvan Sibii is a senior lecturer of Journalism at UMass Amherst. He writes a monthly column on immigration and incarceration. He can be contacted at razvan@umass.edu.



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