I work as a mental health therapist at an agency around the corner from the Adult Probation and Parole Department in Philadelphia. It is not uncommon to arrive to work in the morning and find a line of folks stretching down the block as they wait to get in and meet with their probation/parole officer. Many of these folks are often referred to my agency for therapy services and some of them end up in my office.
The stories they tell are eerily similar. They have spent significant portions of their life in and out of prison. They have struggled to find sufficient housing. They cannot find work. They cannot get their health benefits turned on. They fear going back to prison but they don’t know how to live on the “outside.” They have suffered from addiction. They are suffering from crippling anxiety and depression stemming from the trauma of incarceration. Some of these men have shared with me that they used to engage in street violence and drug trade without hesitation but since getting out of prison they can’t even ride the subway without suffering a panic attack or triggering their post-traumatic stress syndrome.
I recently watched the powerful documentary, 13TH, which explores the history of mass incarceration in the US. The film revisits the story of Kalief Browder. At sixteen, he was accused of stealing a backpack and was sent to Riker’s Island where he spent three years waiting for a trial, seventeen months of which were in solitary confinement. When Kalief was eventually released from Riker’s as an innocent man, his story begins to sound like so many of those who have sat in my office. An article in The New York Times describes how Kalief “almost recreated the conditions of solitary” by isolating himself in his bedroom. The article goes on to say that he was “very uncomfortable being around other people, especially in large groups.” In a 2014 interview with The New Yorker, Kalief stated “Being home is way better than being in jail. But in my mind right now I feel like I’m still in jail.” Sadly, Kalief’s psychological distress would eventually lead to his death. He committed suicide in his mother’s home in June of 2015.
When I hear Kalief’s story, it immediately brings to mind all of the men I have met who have returned from prison with severe mental health issues that they nor the people around them seem to understand. Often these psychological issues prevent these returning citizens from being able to meet their basic needs. It has become increasingly clear to me that we need more resources like Redemption Housing—a place that seeks to wrap men returning from prison in Christ-like love. I have seen how a single positive relationship can give these men the support they need to succeed in rebuilding their lives. A friend who lets them crash on their couch. A loved one who helps them with transportation. It is easy for me to imagine the difference a community like Redemption Housing could make.
Robert Kuehl is a psychotherapist working in Philadelphia, PA. He is a graduate of Temple University (BA, Broadcasting, Telecommunications and Mass Media, 2004) and Eastern University (MA, Clinical Counseling, 2014). He attends West Philadelphia Mennonite Fellowship with his wife and three children where he seeks to bring issues of race and mass incarceration to the greater consciousness of the congregation.