From the September-October 2019 issue of News & Letters
Editor’s note: Homecoming Project coordinator for Impact Justice, Terah Lawyer, spoke in July at a community event in Oakland, Calif., about her transformation in prison and the Homecoming Project.
Oakland, Calif.—I went into prison at age 18, a crazy, reckless teenager, with a 15-to-life sentence. I served the entire 15 years. I was released last November.
FINDING FREEDOM IN PRISON
I grew into a woman in that cold place, waking up every day to the bare walls, trying to find some deeper meaning in that hard exterior concrete jungle. I did. I found freedom while in prison, through education, spiritually, as a connection with other people.
I was in a sea of brokenness. When I looked out at the yard I would see more and more broken people, who all wanted connection, healing and freedom, whatever that means at any given moment.
It’s important to get support, to see ladders to help you climb above what you see before you. The prison system is designed to depreciate your perspective of yourself. I knew from early on that this wasn’t “it.” I knew that hurt people hurt people and that healing comes in various more humane ways than imprisonment, which wasn’t allowing people to tap into their best selves.
Many individuals, including myself, had a history of trauma and abuse that gave them the ability to excuse their behaviors, impulses, anger and hurt. But once you give that person true genuine human love, given freely, people respond in kind. Sadly, that does not come from guards or prison “rehabilitation” programs. It comes from each other, from folks experiencing incarceration. Those who are a little stronger help those who might be a little weaker, and so on.
Coming home, I decided that my life belongs to my community. I gave up the selfish ideas and drives that make you want, want, want, that endless want. People coming out need assistance, some more than others. There are mothers, people with mental health issues, financial issues, etc. We have to meet people where they are at and ask them, what do you want for yourself?
Through the Homecoming Project, I am helping to address some of the needs of people who spent a long time in prison. Technology is very different, but also just navigating the systems, the cost of living, for example. A McDonald’s sandwich used to be $3, now it’s $10. Adjustment is a big thing, it’s a trauma to come back, especially for long-term prisoners.
PEOPLE OPEN HOMES, HEARTS
It’s an incredible idea to ask people in the community to open up their homes if they have an extra bedroom, to house someone coming out of prison for up to six months. We would pay them to live in your home, but it still seemed crazy! Yet it’s working! We placed our first participant in August 2018. We are blown away by the outcomes. The intention was to just give people housing. There is such a draught of housing, especially in the Bay Area. We found that the first five prisoners we placed tapped into their potential way above an average level.
Our first participant found employment in nine days! It is not “normal”! Others went back to college and completed their Bachelors’ degrees. Others have been hired by Google. When individuals have their first survival need met, which is housing, they can focus on their potentialities, pursuing their heart’s goals, becoming community members that you would be proud to call your neighbors.
There are so many applicants who want housing. If you are willing to become a host, I will learn about who you are, your lifestyle preferences. I will select participants who will be compatible with your home’s rules, etc. You meet the prisoner, and then the participant and the host choose each other. We are just a matchmaker. We partner every one of our participants with a community navigator who also was incarcerated and now is aware of what services are available. They help track the prisoner’s re-entry goals and make sure they can meet them. They help people reach their potential by just extending a helping hand.
I could have been homeless; I could not have done it on my own without a helping hand. We need each other: you know things I don’t and vice-versa. Unless we are able to share spaces and open up, we will all be in the dark, or just in our own silos of understanding. That’s not the way we should live.