Root & Rebound

The Early Days Out: Life after Serving a Life Sentence

Navigating freedom after 25 years behind bars

Root & Rebound
7 min readApr 9, 2024

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Stand in front of a group of people in ironed suits. They’re rummaging through papers, squinting their eyes at a stack of notes in front of them. Your shirt and pants are blue, but they don’t belong to you. You’ve waited for this moment for decades, and it’s finally here. Today you will dig through your memory bank and recall moments in your childhood. You think of times that make you smile and giggle under your breath, moments you’d forgotten about. Then the other memories start to seep in, when things went astray, when the world didn’t quite make sense. Then there are those other times that you wish you’d forgotten because until recently, those vivid memories had been buried in a memory-like graveyard. Relive the day of the incident. Feel the rush of emotions sprinting through your squishy veins. You recognize that you’re taking shallow breaths. Your palms are sweaty. The very fluids that are keeping you alive begin to boil underneath your skin. The room feels cold but it’s not because of the air conditioner; it’s the heavy questions. You pause — “What have you done since you came to prison? What about you has changed? Do you understand the impact you’ve had on the lives of others, including yourself?”

Shujaa was preparing for an opportunity at freedom. He was nearing his 25th year of being incarcerated and was getting ready for his board hearing, something Lifers¹ must do to demonstrate they’ve changed and are not a threat to public safety if they are to be released. Part of this includes illustrating one’s rehabilitation and having concrete plans of what life will look like on the outside.

Preparing for the unknown can be scary. Shujaa had ideas of the future ruminating in the back of his mind because he understood that if he wanted to be granted parole, he needed realistic plans. He knew to start with the necessities, like housing, potential employment, and a support system, but that was all that came to mind. It had been decades since he’d been in the free world, and he didn’t even know what questions to ask. He wasn’t alone when it came to this matter as several of his peers, other long-termers, also struggled with ideas for the future.

While walking to the dining hall one day, a friend of his mentioned a class that guided people through the tough topic of what to do once you’re released; this is how we met Shujaa.

At Folsom State Prison, Root & Rebound runs a workshop that addresses key aspects of what life may look like after incarceration. The majority of those who attend are Lifers with an upcoming board date,² and our workshops are led by attorneys and experts in reentry — individuals who were once in their shoes.

Thinking about life after incarceration, Shujaa began to learn about the protections he had when looking for employment, what landlords may see on his record when searching for an apartment, how to understand his parole conditions, and how to sign up for benefits and acquire basic identification. Although difficult, Shujaa slowly started becoming familiar with what to prepare for on the outside.

“We had certain people in that class… we had been gone 20, 30 years, so like we didn’t know nothing about the outside world…. Root & Rebound came in and brought us up to speed [on] what was going on and the rights that we had, things like that…. It was an eye-opener for us, so we used that. It was huge. All these resources; they knew right where to go.”

Eventually, Shujaa went to his parole hearing and was found suitable. He was both excited and nervous about what was to come, but what helped him feel a bit more prepared was having a roadmap — a reentry plan he had built throughout the class. In addition to the course material, Root & Rebound wrote a letter to the board in support of Shujaa’s release. We also provided him with information on the resources available near his residence because he would be living in an area he had never visited before.³ He had a list of things to start working on the moment he was released, like securing housing, calling the truck driving school he wanted to be a part of, enrolling in medical benefits, applying for food stamps, obtaining a social security card, and how to get an ID, simple things needed to function in the outside world. Shujaa was ready to be a normal person again.

A few months after being found suitable, Shujaa was a free person. He marveled at the simple things that freedom offered — spending time with loved ones, moving about freely, food with salt and spices — but he also recognized a separate reality that paralleled the beauty of freedom.

On his first day out while making his way to the transitional home, he noticed the pavement wasn’t as clean the closer he neared his destination. The amount of trash on the sidewalk increased with each step he took. Other things began to cover the floor: graffiti, drugs, people, and the occasional dog poop. It had only been a few hours since his release, and while making his way around the city, someone approached Shujaa in a manner that reminded him of his lifestyle before he went to prison. The stranger acted confrontational, potentially creating a violent situation and pulling Shujaa back into a scenario where he would have to defend himself, but Shujaa backed away. He crossed the street and kept pushing forward — a scary situation for people on parole because their freedom is on the line in any given situation.

“We got to learn how to just have self-control and self-discipline because it’s getting tested every minute, every second of the day. But in those times… I just had to think. I had to process and think these things [through] and not take them personal. It’s been working. That stuff works; them groups work. If you apply them in your daily life, it works.”

Reentry is a multifaceted subject. One has to do their best to plan ahead but in an oxymoronic way, they must also leave their plans fluid enough to account for the unexpected. A few weeks after his release, Shujaa received terrible news about one of his closest aunts passing away. Although not part of his immediate family, she helped raise him and was like a mother to him. The news was tough to bear, and immediately his family scrambled to make arrangements so he could attend the funeral. They bought plane tickets and made accommodations so that he’d have a place to stay. All he was waiting on was for his parole officer to approve the travel pass, but his request was denied. And if things weren’t already difficult, a few days later Shujaa got news that another auntie of his had passed away and he was also not allowed to attend her funeral.

“Them people is like second mothers to me… they mean something to me, but they’re saying, ‘It’s not your immediate family. It’s not your mother. It’s not your father, your sister, your brother,’ but these people was huge in my life.”

Not having support from his parole officer brought up an old framework of thinking, where he would build walls and block himself from receiving any type of help from others. Being denied the travel passes made him weary of parole officers. He wasn’t able to mourn with his family and be around people who understood the hurt he was going through. He was tempted to take matters into his own hands and still attend the funeral, but he knew that would break his parole conditions and the outcome of that action would land him back in prison.

Six months after being released, Shujaa is still in the beginning stages of rebuilding his life. He’s living in a transitional home and is working two jobs. He still attends self-help groups. Every day he’s adjusting to the world of technology and cultural shifts because as you can imagine, the world is quite different from the way he remembered it.

In time, Shujaa plans to get his commercial driving license and become a truck driver. He also hopes to own a home one day, but above everything else, Shujja hopes that when people look at him, he’s no longer confined to the idea of not being able to change, to the label of a criminal or someone who cannot be trusted. He just hopes they see a normal person standing in front of them.

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[1] Incarcerated individuals serving an indeterminate sentence; a sentence without a release date.

[2] Lifers must earn their release date by being found suitable by the Board of Parole Hearings (BPH).

[3] In California, it is common for an individual to be released to the same county they were convicted in, but sometimes they are mandated to live in a completely new area, often bringing an onset of challenges like being away from family and having to rebuild a support system.

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Root & Rebound

Support people navigating reentry and reduce the harms perpetuated by mass incarceration.