'Driving Straight,' Giving Back: Rebuilding A Life After Prison

Jul 19, 2015
Originally published on July 20, 2015 1:34 pm

In a speech last week, President Obama made a case for overhauling the criminal justice system.

"Mass incarceration makes our country worse off, and we need to do something about it," he said.

Then he took his message to the people his proposals could affect most. On Thursday, he met with six inmates at the Federal Correctional Institution in El Reno, Okla. — all convicted of nonviolent drug offenses — and became the first sitting president to ever visit a federal prison.

Earlier he commuted the sentences of 46 criminals with nonviolent drug charges. Those people will eventually be released, with a chance to rebuild their lives.

But what does that look like?

This week on For the Record: Life after prison. We speak with three people who are starting over after incarceration.


Robert Taitt, 33, of Brooklyn, N.Y

When Taitt was growing up, he felt like he had two options: He could be book smart or he could be street smart. He chose the dangerous path and ended up in prison, serving 10 years for robbery.

When he got out, Taitt took the other path: taking classes at John Jay College in New York.

"I'm studying English," he says. "I'm a English major and I'm in my second year."

He remembers how he felt the day he left prison.

"It was just so refreshing to know that I'm driving straight, and when I look back, I can say that was then and this is now," he says.


Jacqueline Whitt, 39, of Portland, Ore.

Whitt has been in prison twice, most recently for 26 months on burglary and theft charges. She spent her first months of freedom at a shelter because she couldn't go back to her family.

"Most of my family are in their addiction or their criminality, and it wouldn't be a safe place for me to return because I'm trying to actually change the way that I think and behave, and it wouldn't be a safe environment for me," she says.

Whitt focused on getting her kids back.

"All the steps that I took, and the programs that I got engaged in, was directed at getting me a place so I could get my kids back, and I did that within four months," she says.

For both Whitt and Taitt to move on, they had to reject almost everything about the life they led before prison.

"There have been a lot of times when I've been tempted to return back to my old behaviors — maybe because I'm not able to pay all of my bills, or I feel unsupported or I feel lonely, maybe even boredom ... " she says. "However, I learned how to play the tape through and to not act impulsively. It feels like such a blessing that I've developed a skill not to act on those feelings."


Jason Hernandez, 38, of McKinney, Texas

Hernandez was convicted of conspiracy to distribute controlled substances and other charges related to crack cocaine. He served almost 17 years in a number of prisons, including the correctional facility Obama visited last week.

He remembers one day in particular.

"It was Dec. 19, 2013," he says. "The warden came in and said, 'Are you Jason Hernandez? and I said, 'Yes, sir.' He goes, 'Well, I got an executive order right here from the president of the United States, Barack Obama, commuting your sentence from life without parole to 20 years.' And I just started crying right there and then."

He still has that letter.

"It's kind of torn. It's wrinkly, it's creased, has grease on it, and that's because I held it in my hand for almost two days," he says. "I slept with it, I took it everywhere, because I just thought that if I had let go of it, that, you know, it wouldn't be real anymore."

Hernandez lives at his parents' house, where he's under house arrest until Aug. 11.

He knows he's lucky: He expected to die in prison. Now he works at a restaurant called Cafe Momentum, where he mentors young people who've been in juvenile detention. But at first, he faced plenty of rejection from potential employers.

"They would say, 'Well, there has to be something you're not telling me about your charge because nobody gets that much time for drugs," he says. "So I ended up taking my petition that the president gave me. I would take it to job interviews."

Hernandez wants to keep working with kids who've had a rough start. Eventually he'd like to start his own organization.

"My whole goal is to work on that promise that I made to Obama, and fulfill it," he says. "I kind of see him like a father, and just like any son, I want to make him proud."


Three takeaways

First, it's striking how much these three former prisoners relied on social services to transition to life after prison. Whether it was paying for them to stay in some kind of transitional facility or linking them with job and educational services, or in Jackie's case, mental health services, they all seem to have navigated the transition because they had a lot of help.

Second, each one has a different idea of what success looks like. For Taitt, it's about getting an education that he believes will open up professional doors. For Whitt, it's about being a better parent than she's been in the past. And for Hernandez, success means shifting his focus to others.

Finally, although all are committed to creating a new life, it's still clear that everything could go off the rails if they make one bad choice. The way Whitt talked about this was most telling, using words and phrases that could just as easily have come from a therapist or social worker. But it's what she has to tell herself to keep holding everything together.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. And this is For the Record.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: First, President Obama made a speech this past week about overhauling the criminal justice system.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It is not as fair as it should be. Mass incarceration makes our country worse off, and we need to do something about it.

MARTIN: Then he took his message to the people his proposals could affect most.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: President Obama making history, becoming the first sitting president to ever visit a federal prison.

MARTIN: On Thursday, President Obama met with six inmates at the Federal Correctional Institution in El Reno, Okla. - all of them in prison for nonviolent drug offenses. Obama has focused on nonviolent offenders who he says are serving more time than their crimes warrant. Earlier in the week, he commuted the sentences of 46 criminals with nonviolent drug charges. Those people will eventually be released with a chance to start over. For the Record today, life after prison. The details of those first moments outside prison walls can be easy to recall years later.

ROBERT TAITT: For me, it was being driven out of the jail that I was in. It was just so refreshing to know that I'm driving straight, and when I look back, I can say that was then. And this is now, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TAITT: My name is Robert Taitt. I'm 33 years old. I live in Brooklyn, N.Y. I was incarcerated for 10 years. My charge was robbery 1. I was 20 years old.

MARTIN: Those first moments out of prison can be exhilarating, also daunting.

JACQUELINE WHITT: A lot of things were on my mind because I didn't have a place to go, and I was homeless. And I didn't have any family that I would be able to rely on. And so I had a lot of emotion and uncertainty. My name's Jacqueline Whitt. I am from Portland, Ore. I've been to prison twice. And the last time - I was just released - I served 26 months. The crime was for burglary and theft 1.

MARTIN: When Jackie Whitt first got out of prison, she went to a shelter. She couldn't go back to her family.

WHITT: Most of my family are in their addiction or their criminality, and it wouldn't be a safe place for me to return because I'm trying to actually change the way that I think and behave. And I - it wouldn't be a safe environment for me.

MARTIN: Robert Taitt moved into a transitional facility. It was a good first step, but he felt limited.

TAITT: I don't want to get too sociopolitical or anything like that, but my brother always told me, we have two strikes against us. We're African-American, and we're male. That is something that society, quote, unquote, "looks down upon." With my felony added to that, that's my third strike. And it makes it even worse that I'm 6-feet-2. I'm 250-60 pounds. I have braids in my hair, and I'm very broad-shouldered. I'm a big guy. So I already look like a menace.

MARTIN: When Taitt was growing up, he felt like he had just two options. He could be book smart or he could be street smart. He chose a more dangerous path and ended up in prison. When he got out, he went the other way.

TAITT: I'm studying English. I'm an English major, and I'm in my second year.

MARTIN: He's taking classes at John Jay College in New York. I asked him if his teachers know about his past.

TAITT: No, I don't want to tell a teacher that because now I'm hindering myself. Now the teacher's going to grade me on a curve outside of what the teacher normally does, and I don't want that. I want an even playing field. I don't want to use my incarceration. I want everything the same as everybody else.

MARTIN: Robert Taitt focused on getting an education. Jackie Whitt wanted her kids back.

WHITT: All the steps that I took and the programs that I got engaged in was directed at getting me a place so I can get my kids back. And I did that within four months.

MARTIN: For both Jackie Whitt and Robert Taitt to move on, they had to reject almost everything about their lives before prison.

WHITT: There have been a lot of times when I've been tempted to return back to my old behaviors, maybe because I'm not able to pay all of my bills or I feel unsupported or I feel lonely - maybe even boredom and thinking that I could just make things happen so much quicker if I just did this action or that action. However, I learned how to play the tape through and to not act impulsively. It feels like such a blessing that I've developed a skill to not act on that feeling.

MARTIN: That's what starting over looks like for two people who have served their sentences and have been out of prison for a couple of years. Jason Hernandez has a different story.

JASON HERNANDEZ: It was December 19, 2013. They were looking for me in the prison, and the warden came in and said, are you Jason Hernandez? And I said, yes, sir. And he goes, well, I got an executive order right here from President of the United States Barack Obama commuting your sentence from life without parole to 20 years. And I just started crying right there and then. And I put my head down, and I just kept saying, it's over; it's over.

MARTIN: Did you get to see the letter?

HERNANDEZ: Yeah, I still have it here. And I didn't want to let - I - if you could see it, it's all - it's kind of tore. It's wrinkly. It's creased. It has grease on it. And that's because I'd held it in my hand for, like, almost two days. I slept with it, and I took it everywhere 'cause I just thought that if I had let go of it that, you know, it wouldn't be real anymore.

MARTIN: Jason Hernandez's sentence was commuted by President Obama in 2013. He was convicted of conspiracy to distribute controlled substances and other charges related to crack-cocaine. He served almost 17 years in prison - some of them at the same correctional facility President Obama visited this past week. Even though his sentence was commuted, there were conditions. Hernandez lives at his parents' house, where he is still under house arrest until August 11.

HERNANDEZ: I don't have a monitor on my leg, but I have a phone here at my house where I have to answer it. If I don't answer it, they can practically called the U.S. marshals and say, you know, Jason's an escaped inmate.

MARTIN: He's allowed to go to work, to church, and once a week, he can go out to eat at a restaurant.

HERNANDEZ: But, hey, if they could've gave me 10, 20 years of house arrest, I wouldn't mind. I mean, I know there's thousands of inmates who would love to be in my position, so I can't complain.

MARTIN: He knows he's lucky. Jason Hernandez had a life sentence without parole. He expected to die in prison. Now he works at a restaurant called Cafe Momentum, where he mentors young people who've been in juvenile detention. He's found work that he loves, but it wasn't easy. He heard a lot of noes at the beginning from potential employers.

HERNANDEZ: They would ask me, you know, what was your conviction? And I would say, a drug charge. And they would just, like, kind of just shrug their shoulders and say, well, you know, everybody goes to prison for drugs nowadays. But when they asked, well, how long did you do, and I said, well, I did 17 years, and they would just sit back in their chair. And, like, their eyes would get real big, and they were like, are you serious? They would say, well, you know, there has to be something you're not telling me about your charge because nobody gets that much time for drugs. They just wouldn't call me back, or they would just kind of tell me right there and then, like, you know, well, you know, we can't hire you. So I ended up taking my petition that the president gave me. I would take it to job interviews.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: All three of the former prisoners we spoke with - Robert Taitt, Jackie Whitt and Jason Hernandez - know they've been given another chance, and they aren't going to waste it. Robert wants to use his English degree to become a sports writer. Jackie is committed to breaking her family's cycle of addiction and incarceration. She hopes her kids can see that. Jason wants to keep working with kids who've had a rough start. Eventually, he'd like to start his own organization.

HERNANDEZ: I just don't want to touch one kid's life or two kids' life, but I want to touch hundreds - if not thousands - of kids' life. And I believe I can. So my whole goal is to work on that promise that I made to Obama and fulfill it. And I kind of see him like a father, and just like any son, I want to make him proud.

MARTIN: Former prison inmates Jason Hernandez, Robert Taitt and Jackie Whitt. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.